The first block of domestic rugby games is over and we are heading into a new Europe competition or are we? I’ll have a look at what has changed, then have a look at the groups and who will qualify for the QFs.
So what has actually changed?
On the surface it looks very similar, groups of 4 teams who all play each other home and away qualifying for quarterfinal knockout rounds. Under the surface there are a couple of differences:
- Only 5 groups not 6, so 4 fewer teams. With only 1 team from Scotland and Italy it means that there should only be 1 group with weak link.
- Seeding is by last seasons domestic results not 5 years of European rugby results. This means you don’t get high spending Jonny come lately French teams being under seeded.
- There is no worst second places going into the European Rugby Challenge Cup.
- The knockout rounds are scheduled different and so end earlier meaning that there isn’t quiet the same scheduling conflict and some players can possibly be rested for the games.
So not that much different except with 4 fewer teams the standard should be higher and there are very few “easy” games. With Treviso being the only team that is really not up to scratch.
Just got to touch on the name, it is awful. Copying football and with teams like Wasps who came 7th in the Premiership and Treviso who are last in the Pro12 it’s hardly just Champions who are there. Don’t get me wrong I think those teams should be there just that the name of the Cup is plain bad.
OK so not much really changed, let’s get into the groups
Oh dear what have Sale let themselves in for? Sale have been drawn against Muster who are aristocrats of European rugby and two sides who have been at the pointy end for the last two seasons. Sale must look at this as a great experience and chance to learn, they are struggling this season and must look to enjoy these games even if they are going to be on the wrong end of a few scores.
The other three should take points off each other, even so I can’t see Munster with their new coaches managing to get out of this group. So Saracens or Clermont? it’s a real coin flip and I’m going to go with Clermont as they are top of the Top14 and Saracens aren’t at their best yet even if they are picking up results.
Another one where it is easier to spot who will come last rather than who will come top. Dai Young has already been complaining in the post match interviews about the extra pressure on the squad of top tier European competition. Wasps are going to have their squad stretched to the max and again like Sale have to look forward to the experience or it will be a long old competition.
Of the other three sides none of them have kicked off the season well, Leinster and Quins are 50:50 so far but Castres have and a nightmare start. I have to go with Leinster topping the group with their European experience even if there is no BOD anymore. If Castres carry their domestic form into this competition then Quins may get a best loser route into the QFs.
The losers are Scarlets, the Welsh regions just don’t perform in Europe and the other 3 sides will all be looking at making it to the QFs. Clearly that’s impossible and for me it’s going to be a question of who comes second to Toulon and are they a best loser? I don’t think so as Tigers and Ulster will take too many points off each other.
People were writing Toulouse off but 2 wins later and they are starting to eat their words. A bit like Tigers they have had injury problems but it looks like they are just coming right in time. With their pedigree I have to back Toulouse to top the group. For the other three there is a very good chance to come out of the group as best losers. Personally I think that Glasgow are the ones that will do that but they will have to travel well as Bath are very formidable at home and traveling to France is always a challenge.
Racing Métro 92
This is the anomaly and the sort of group that the new competition was supposed to eradicate. Treviso are there for two 5 point wins and Saints and Metro should have too much for Ospreys. Treviso were turning into a side that was hard to beat at home, this season though with 6 losses and only 1 LBP they have regressed. Ospreys get the same “Welsh regions don’t perform in Europe” brush. So it’s two teams from this group, the only question is which order. For me it’s Saints topping and Metro a losing qualifier as long as they try. Sometimes we see French teams concentrating on their domestic league and resting players in Europe but Metro should have a big enough squad to do both.
So that means I’m predicting the following teams to make it into the QFs:
ASM Clermont Leinster Rugby Harlequins RC Toulon Toulouse Glasgow Warriors Northampton Saints Racing Metro 92
If I have all of those right, it will be a miracle but it’s fun to have a go.