Plus, a high quality Challenge Cup competition is an exciting prospect.
WITH THE SAT-NAV pointed towards Newcastle, the long road to St James’ Park gets underway for Europe’s 20 elite clubs this evening, as the Heineken Champions Cup returns with the meeting of defending champions Leinster and Wasps.
Five months on from the eastern province’s crowning moment in Bilbao, a new campaign rolls around with Leo Cullen’s charges beginning their quest to claim a record fifth European star over the coming season.
The three Irish provinces kick-start their pool campaigns against English Premiership opposition, with Munster travelling to Sandy Park for a high-stakes round one clash with Exeter Chiefs and Ulster welcoming Geordan Murphy and the Leicester Tigers to Belfast.
With as many as 28 European titles between this year’s contenders, the competition is as fierce as ever and certainly the structure of the pools — with the seven Pro14 representatives all being decided on merit — means there are no easy games even at this early juncture.
While all the focus will be on how the provinces fare in their opening fixtures, there are a number of fascinating subplots set to play out over the course of the first weekend of action.
Having set their standards in the Pro12/Pro14 in recent years, Glasgow Warriors endured a miserable European campaign last term as their campaign was over before it got going thanks to early defeats to Exeter Chiefs and the eventual champions Leinster.
Dave Rennie’s side were blown away by the province at Scotstoun in round two, as Cullen’s side laid down a real marker of their intent with a clinical bonus-point win on a rainy Glasgow Saturday afternoon.
From there, Glasgow were always playing catch up and would eventually finish bottom of Pool 3 with their stunning final-game defeat of Exeter the only saving grace.
Having made a similarly emphatic start to the Pro14 this year, leading Conference A after six rounds, the Scottish outfit will eye a big opening-weekend win when they host 2016 and 2017 champions Saracens on Sunday afternoon.
Even without the injured Stuart Hogg, Glasgow have enough firepower to become a force in Europe and Sunday provides them with a real opportunity to send out a statement in a pool alongside Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues and tournament debutants Lyon.
While it is a shame there is no Italian representation in this season’s Champions Cup, particularly given the strides Benetton have made in the Pro14, the return of Newcastle Falcons is a welcome addition to the tournament.
With the 2019 decider to be played at St James’ Park, the Falcons are back in the Champions Cup for the first time since 2004/05, when an impressive pool campaign earned them a quarter-final place.
The European rugby landscape has changed a lot since then and Newcastle will face a stiff task if they are to repeat those exploits, with French heavyweights Montpellier, three-time champions Toulon and Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh providing formidable pool opposition.
Dean Richards’ side haven’t exactly got off to a flying start in the Premiership and a trip to Toulon first up could well be a real baptism of fire for the Falcons, so they’ll need to up their game if their return to the top table doesn’t turn into a nightmare campaign.
The Falcons have lost nine of their last 10 away games against Top 14 opposition in European competition, while Toulon have won 23 of their 24 home games in the tournament with Saracens (round one 2016/17) the only visiting side to win at Stade Mayol.
It will be a landmark day for Lyon on Sunday when they embark on their first-ever Champions Cup campaign with an opening fixture against last year’s Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues.
Having booked their place in the competition courtesy of a fifth-place finish in last year’s Top 14, Lyon continue go from strength to strength having been promoted from Pro D2 as recently as 2016.
Sitting third in the Top 14 standings at present, Pierre Mignoni’s side are an exciting addition to the Champions Cup while Cardiff will be making their first appearance in the top European competition since 2015.
The Blues actually beat Lyon en route to last year’s Challenge Cup title and 13 of Sunday’s squad tasted victory on that occasion at the Stade de Gerland.
“We’re very proud to have qualified for this competition for the first time in the club’s history,” Mignoni said.
“The route we’ve taken is a bit unconventional. Two or three years ago we were playing in Pro D2, and we needed to rebuild the team and rebuild the mentality.
“This club has experienced some tough times, promotions and then relegations in the past, but they always kept faith, and the club has moved from a stadium which held 3,000 people to where we are today.
“The change has been remarkable, coming in such a short space of time.”
The star-studded and high quality nature of this year’s Challenge Cup is emphasised by the round one meeting of Northampton Saints and Clermont at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, with the sides having met in the Champions Cup pool stages last term.
Clermont have made an electric start to their domestic season and their involvement in the Challenge Cup will add a new dimension to the second-tier competition, alongside a number of other European heavyweights and clubs from emerging rugby nations.
Connacht get their campaign underway against Bordeaux Begles on Saturday afternoon in Galway and under Andy Friend will be hoping to build on the positive momentum they’ve picked up in the early rounds of the Pro14.
Last season Connacht faltered at the quarter-final stages as a timid performance against Gloucester marked the beginning of the end for Kiwi Kieran Keane, but the western province will fancy their chances of progressing to the knock-out stages for the fourth successive year.
There is, of course, the added carrot of a potential route into next year’s Champions Cup and that will be high on Connacht’s list of priorities this season, with a home tie first up the perfect chance to hit the ground running.
Under the EPCR’s new television rights deal, every Champions Cup game is being televised on BT Sport, with Sky Sports no longer carrying any coverage of the competition.
But there is good news for fans without a subscription to BT Sport as European rugby returns to free-to-air television for the first time since 2006, as Virgin Media continue to enhance their live sport offering.
Starting with Saturday’s clash between Bath and Toulouse from Leinster’s pool, the Ballymount broadcaster will show one live game per weekend during the pool stages, as well as one quarter-final, one semi-final and the Champions Cup final in each of the next four seasons.
Ronan O’Gara and Shane Jennings will join host Joe Molloy in studio for Virgin Media One’s coverage of tomorrow’s Pool 1 game from the Rec, while Sinead Kissane will present a highlights show on the same channel on Saturday night at 10.50pm.
Highlights of Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht will top the bill, before the Virgin cameras head down to Thomond Park for round two as the southern province host Gloucester next Saturday.
⏰ 4 HOURS TO GO ⏰
The Heineken #ChampionsCup is SO CLOSE NOW 🙌
Here’s all the Round 1 fixtures to feast your eyes on 😍 Which match are you most looking forward to? pic.twitter.com/LgH6NXob1r
Subscribe to our new podcast, Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42, here: