Comment: Montpellier have the coach and the players to land Leinster with some serious problems
To paraphrase an old sporting cliché, you cannot win the Champions Cup in October but you can certainly lose it.
The importance of making a fast start in Europe’s premier club competition has never seemed more important; the rate of attrition in club rugby these days, the number and intensity of games, the standard of the competition . . . it is absolutely vital that you hit these first two fixtures with momentum and with your best players fit and in form.
Win your home match and get something on the road and you will give yourself every chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals. Lose them both and you might as well go home. Early-season form can have a huge impact on these initial stages of the competition.
Of course, as we get deeper into the competition things will settle down. It will be the bigger teams with the deeper squads and the most experience of European rugby who will come to the fore: Saracens, Leinster, Toulon and Munster, most likely.
But right now, so early in the season, results can be less predictable. That means there is the potential for in-form teams such as Montpellier, Ulster, Scarlets and Northampton to make early inroads.
At the very least, they represent massive banana skins for the more established European clubs.
This looks like a really open pool. Wasps and Quins will think they can go through but Ulster are the form team here. Les Kiss’s side have made a fast start in the Pro14, winning five and losing just one of their first six games in Conference B, with Charles Piutau sensational the other night in their victory over Connacht.
They represent a significant threat to Wasps on Friday night. Wasps are the kind of team you look at and think they could go all the way: deep squad, good stadium, matchwinners all over the place. But their form is shaky and the fixture list has not been kind to them.
If they do lose in Belfast, their game at home to Harlequins the following weekend is suddenly looking like a must-win. And Wasps lost at home to Quins just a couple of weeks ago. La Rochelle are probably the outsiders.
Saracens deservedly start as favourites to lift a third straight European crown. They have the experience, the depth of squad, and they can deliver under pressure.
The only reason they didn’t win the double again last year is they had to travel to Exeter for their semi-final. And even then they were one incredible touch-finder away from winning that match at Sandy Park.
They do have a tricky opening match, away at a now in-form Northampton, who will be hurting from their big opening-day loss at Sarries’ hands. At least it’s not too far to travel. Next week they entertain Ospreys. It’s just unthinkable they will not be there at the business end. Saints and Clermont will be battling it out to be the second team to qualify.
If you gave me one pool to watch it would be this one. Glasgow and Exeter are playing with momentum and both have something to prove on the European stage.
As Premiership champions, Exeter are no longer the plucky minnows. They will be expected to do much better in Europe — and I am sure Rob Baxter will see it that way, too. They are powerful, they play positive rugby and they are strong at Sandy Park. Glasgow are unbeaten under new coach Dave Rennie but they have to travel to Exeter first up on Saturday.
They will not have faced a multi-phase attacking unit like that in a while. It promises to be a fascinating contest. Leinster we know all about. They are always a force in Europe and they look solid. They have a very strong and powerful international contingent. They have experience at 10 in Johnny Sexton. They could easily advance to the latter stages next spring.
Then you have Montpellier. The French team are my dark horses for the tournament. In Vern Cotter, Alex King and Nathan Hines, they have an exceptional coaching unit. Cotter has experience of European rugby from his Clermont days. King is an outstanding coach and reader of the game.
Montpellier’s playing squad is ridiculously strong. Their forwards are all powerful: Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Nico Janse van Rensburg, Louis Picamoles (probably Northampton’s outstanding player last year), Paul Willemse. Their backs are uber-talented: Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half, Aaron Cruden at fly-half, Alexandre Dumoulin and Francois Steyn in midfield, and a couple of Fijian flyers on the wings in Nemani Nadolo and Timoci Nagusa.
A lot of people won’t know about Montpellier. They will think of Toulon, Toulouse, Racing and Clermont as France’s major threats.
But I’m not sure those fans outside of France have yet appreciated just how good Cotter’s team are. They can afford four or five injuries, they are that good. They are top of the Top 14 with five wins out of six.
And while they have never done anything in Europe, they have a top coach in Cotter and they have big personalities. They are serious dark horses. Their first match in Leinster is an absolute humdinger.
Every team is under pressure from game one in that group. Lose and your second game becomes a must-win.
Ten years ago it was just Toulouse. Now, with the amount of money being thrown around, there are so many French teams who can compete at the sharp end of European rugby — and they now take their away trips seriously, too, which wasn’t always the case.
Leicester and Munster both have such huge pedigree in Europe, though. That has to count for something.
The Tigers will do well to get anything from their trip to Paris on Saturday. Racing gave Leicester a lesson in January. Castres also did some damage last year, their 41-7 win over Northampton sticking in the mind. Munster will do well to win there first up, but they should be strong at Thomond Park, as usual.
Bath should certainly be looking to qualify for the quarter-finals this year, especially with Todd Blackadder now in his second season with the club. We are starting to see his influence more.
The pool looks wide open and they do not play Toulon in the first two rounds. The French heavyweights are certainly the team to beat here, though.