The Heineken Champions Cup returns this weekend, kicking off with a Friday night clash between Northampton Saints and Racing 92 under the lights at Franklin’s Gardens.
With its status as European club rugby’s biggest prize, competition is sure to be as fervent as ever, as the continent’s elite strive to etch their names onto the trophy and into the history books.
Ahead of the 27th edition of European Rugby’s most prestigious club competition, we take a look at the teams best placed to collect the trophy in Marseille on May 22.
It’s been a little over a decade since Exeter first attained promotion to the top-flight of English rugby, but in that time, they have firmly established themselves as one of the premier sides at both domestic and continental level.
Having contested every Premiership final since 2016, success has become the norm at Sandy Park, and they will fancy their chances of achieving a second European title to go alongside their 2020 triumph.
Since being appointed Director of Rugby in 2009, Rob Baxter has aided the club’s ascent by instilling a heavy emphasis on ball retention, an approach clearly reflected in their stats from last year’s Champions Cup campaign, where they reigned supreme in terms of average time spent in possession.
They’ve continued that trend into the new season, where they have again enjoyed more time in possession than any other Premiership club.
A league-high number of carries, combined with the lowest number of kicks in open play further demonstrate their commitment to this cause, making them a frustrating side to dispossess.
Player to Watch: Sam Simmonds
A large bulk of those carries come via back-rower Sam Simmonds, who carried on a league-high 263 occasions last term.
He made them count too, as he beat more defenders than any other forward, and set an all-time record for tries in a single Premiership season with an astonishing total of 23.
Simmonds also managed to record the most turnovers won of any player in last season’s Champions Cup.
Despite being continuously left out of the England setup by Eddie Jones, Simmonds was named in the British & Irish Lions squad for last summer’s tour of South Africa, where he featured off the bench in the third Test, before eventually featuring for England in the autumn.
Similar to Exeter, La Rochelle are a side who have enjoyed a relatively rapid rise to the top of club rugby in recent years.
Promotion to the Top 14 in 2014 sparked a journey which has so far culminated in the coastal club finishing as runners-up in both the league and Champions Cup last time out.
Now under the tutelage of Ronan O’Gara, who twice won the tournament as a player with Munster, the maritime outfit will be keen to turn silver into gold this time around.
Whilst O’Gara may have specialised in the kicking department as a player, his La Rochelle side resemble Exeter in terms of their dedication towards a strong running game and keeping the ball alive.
Boasting league high totals in carrying, clean breaks and metres made in the Top 14 so far this season, they undoubtedly have the potential to carve any team open given the opportunity.
It’s not just going forward where they’ve impressed though, as they’ve also registered league lows in terms of line breaks and tries allowed so far this term.
Player to Watch: Grégory Alldritt
Aged just 24 and able to play anywhere across the backrow, Alldritt has firmly established himself as a key player for both La Rochelle and the French national team.
Much like the team as a whole, he excels with ball in hand, recording the most carries of any player in last year’s Champions Cup, along with ranking second amongst forwards for metres made and defenders beaten.
In terms of defensive stats, Alldritt also finished in the top ten for tackles made in this year’s Six Nations.
Leinster sit second on the all-time honours list having won the competition on four occasions, including three times in four years between 2009 and 2012.
The provincial side have also dominated domestically in recent years, winning four consecutive Pro 14 titles, and sitting top of the pile once again this season.
Perhaps no team in the competition can boast as strong an international contingent as Leinster, who provided 12 of Ireland’s starters as they dispatched New Zealand in the Autumn Nations Series.
The highest scoring side in this year’s newly branded United Rugby Championship, Leinster also lead the pack in terms of metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten.
Player to Watch: Rónan Kelleher
Kelleher’s excellent form of late has seen him firmly cement himself as Rory Best’s successor at international level.
A key part of any hooker’s job is throwing the ball into the line-out, and nobody did that better than Kelleher in last year’s campaign. A 96.8% success rate made him the most accurate of anybody with over 20 attempts.
Along with boasting the most carries of any hooker last season, Kelleher also had a 98% tackle success rate, missing just one of his 48 attempts. He is a constant presence around the pitch, whether Leinster have the ball or not.
Despite being three-time finalists, most recently in 2020, victory in this competition has so far eluded Racing 92.
Whilst they may be failing to light up the Top 14 so far this season, currently sitting in 8th place, Racing tend to save their best performances for the European stage, where they finished as last season’s top points scorers, despite getting knocked out in the quarter-finals by compatriots Bordeaux.
Racing may not be the most favoured side on this list, but when you can field a backline containing star names such as Finn Russell, Teddy Thomas and Kurtley Beale, you stand a chance of winning any game of rugby.
Should they come through their group stage matches against Ospreys and Northampton unscathed, the Parisians of Racing have the destructive capability to make life difficult for any opponent in the knock-out rounds as they aim to overcome their label as Europe’s nearly men.
Player To Watch: Kurtley Beale
As one of the key linchpins of Racing’s star-studded backline, much expectation will be placed on the experienced shoulders of Kurtley Beale this season.
Last term, during his first year in France, the Australian made more clean breaks than any other player in the tournament and wound up third on the list of individual metres made.
Beale recently made his return to the Wallabies team during the Autumn Nations Series, where he featured in all three games of their British tour.
Toulouse come into this year’s tournament as reigning champions after clinching a record-breaking fifth title at Twickenham in May.
Despite losing one of their stars in Cheslin Kolbe during the Summer, Toulouse are expected to mount a strong title defence this time around.
They’ve certainly carried their stellar form into this season’s Top 14, which they’re also seeking to retain, sitting comfortably in the play-off spots after 12 games.
Even without Kolbe’s individual magnificence, they’ve still managed to beat more defenders than any other side so far this term, a feat they also achieved in last year’s Champions Cup en route to the title.
This attacking splendour has been paired with defensive solidity so far this season, with Toulouse holding the best defensive record thus far in this year’s Top 14.
Player to Watch: Antoine Dupont
The reigning ECPR Player of The Year, and a strong contender for the World Player of The Year award, it is nigh-on impossible to watch a Toulouse or France match and not be thoroughly mesmerized by the performances of the diminutive Dupont.
No player covered more ground or beat more defenders in last season’s competition, as he racked up a gargantuan 356 metres made and 24 defenders beaten, over double that of any other scrum-half in either metric.
Should Toulouse become the first team since Saracens in 2017 to retain the title, you can safely assume that it will largely be down to the efforts of their superlative scrum-half.
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