Still A European competition?
The headline coming into this season is that it is difficult to call the Champions Cup a European competition before as we now have three teams from South Africa in the competition. There is no surprises that South Africa have teams in the competition as this was inevitable with them joining the URC.
It means that there are a few teams who will be travelling down to South Africa for the Champions Cup and this is a sign of rugby edging further towards a global calendar. There has been some criticism of the South African teams joining a European competition and it is against the traditions of the competitions.
However, these South African teams simply bring up the level of competition in the tournament as they have already shown they can beat Europe’s elite. All three of the South African teams will be contenders this season and home advantage has to be huge for these teams.
It means that we will see the elite South African sides facing off against some of the best teams from France and England for the first time, creating some incredibly interesting matchups. I think this will only make the competition more exciting.
Last seasons competition
We are coming off the back of a brilliant Champions Cup competition where there were a couple of big upsets and some brilliant performances. Leinster looked by far the best team in Europe throughout the competition, finishing fourth however in their group after a surprise loss.
The two-legged Round of 16 was brilliant and featured three games that came right down to the wire, with both Harlequins and Ulster falling out of the competition by just a single point despite finishing higher in their pool than their opposition.
Toulouse were the team to upset Ulster and then defeated Munster on a penalty shootout after the scores were tied at the end of extra time. But Toulouse fell to Leinster in a heavy defeat and it looked incredibly likely that Leinster would cruise to the title as they were also dominating the URC.
On the other side of the draw, La Rochelle were able to defeat three French teams on the way to the final. Coached by legendary Munster back Ronan O’Gara, La Rochelle outphysicalled Leinster in the final thanks to an incredibly big pack that featured guys like Will Skelton, Uini Atonio and Dany Priso.
Substitute Arthur Retiere scored the winning try in the 79th minute and it was enough for La Rochelle to upset Leinster.
The format for this seasons competition is a slightly complicated one. The 24 teams are split into two pools of 12 teams. Each team will play two teams twice, once at home and once away. These fixtures were randomly selected so some teams have quite difficult pool stages and some have easier pool stages.
The top eight teams from each pool will advance to the Round of 16 and from there it is a simple knockout format. The change from the previous season is that the Round of 16 will be a single game as opposed to a two-legged tie as it was last year.
The two teams who advance to the final will play out the game on the 30th of May in Dublin.
This season looks like one for revenge for this Leinster team. They ended last season with two incredibly disappointing defeats, losing in the Champions Cup final and the URC semi-final. At the time of writing they have started the season undefeated in the URC despite not always having their internationals.
Those Irish internationals are coming off the back of an incredible achievement in the summer where they defeated New Zealand in a test series in New Zealand. It was a historic moment for Irish Rugby and eleven of the starting 15 for the final test play for Leinster including current World Rugby Player of the Year Josh Van der Flier.
Van der Flier is certainly not the only superstar on this Leinster team. Tadhg Furlong and Johnny Sexton also featured in the World Rugby 15s Dream Team of the Year and will be looking to add another title to their collection. Leinster will also be able to rely on guys like Jamison Gibson-Park, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw.
Leinster have a successful history in the Champions Cup, winning the competition four times and making the semi-finals in six of the last eight seasons. Despite the loss in the final next year they have to be considered one of the favourites for the competition again and there motivation has to be even higher this year.
We have to consider the reigning champions as one of the contenders for the competition this year. The French side were on the losing side of the final in 2021 and managed to get revenge in 2022, winning the title in France.
The future of head coach Ronan O’Gara was an uncertainly going into the season but it was a massive relief to La Rochelle when it was announced O’Gara had signed an extension, ending speculation of his move to coaching an international team like England.
This is a team who went through a lot of change in the summer, with guys like Ihaia West and Dany Priso heading out the door after starting in the 2022 final. Winning try scorer Arthur Retiere also left in the summer going to rivals Toulouse. They have however added some big talent in the summer.
Teddy Thomas is the teams star signing and he will be excellent in attack for this team. Yoan Tanga, Ultan Dillane and Antoine Hastoy are also some of the players that have been signed by the team in the summer.
The physicality that La Rochelle have will certainly still be there as they still have Uini Atonio, Pierre Bougarit and Joel Sclavi upfront as well as some huge forwards further back. Will Skelton, Levani Botia and Gregory Aldritt are three of the biggest ball carriers in the world and La Rochelle have all three to rely on.
Teddy Thomas adds a new attacking threat out wide that this team did not necessarily have and it makes the teams back three very dangerous. La Rochelle will still be a force to be reconned with and can be a real threat for this title.
Due to their demotion to the Championship in 2020 we have not seen Saracens in the Champions Cup in the past two seasons but they are back this year after finishing second in the Premiership in 2021-22. Saracens have an incredibly good pedigree in Europe and teams will be concerned about their return.
Saracens have won the Champions Cup three times in the last seven years and what will concern a lot of people is that Saracens have managed to keep a lot of the stars from their previous success. Guys like Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell are all still there and still performing at a high level.
In fact Saracens have started the season undefeated, winning nine of their first nine games and being by far the best team in England so far this season. In the time away Saracens have amassed some stars who could make their names in the competition this season.
Theo McFarland will get the chance to show his quality on the European stage having been one of the best players in the Premiership over the last 18 months. Ben Earl, Max Malins and Hugh Tizard will all be seeing the competition as a great way to impress whoever the new England coach is going to be.
Saracens still have the same quality of the previous teams and they could once again be a force in Europe.
Toulouse were the Champions Cup champions in 2021 and they will once again be a team to look out for this season. They fell just short of the final last season, losing to Leinster in a heavy defeat in the semi-final.
This Toulouse team is still looking like a star studded one and they have reached at least the semi-final in the previous four competitions. If you take a look at the teams squad you can see why they are one of the contenders for the competition.
It begins with the best 9-10 partnership in the world with Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack running their attack in a similar way to they do with France. The physically of their front row is incredibly difficult to match particularly when you look at the depth they have up front with seven international level front row players.
What is scary about this Toulouse team is that they have so much talent throughout their team, helped by the mid-season addition of Jack Willis. In the summer this team added a huge amount of talent and having a back three made of any three of Arthur Retiere, Matthis Lebel, Ange Capuozzo, Melvyn Jaminet, Thomas Ramos and Juan Cruz Mallia.
This is an incredibly talented team who are at the top of the Top 14 at the time of writing and look like they can be extremely dangerous in this competition.
I think the Sharks could be the biggest threat of any South African team. Despite a Quarter-final exit in the URC last season, the Sharks look the most dangerous South African team when at full strength.
They had arguably the best signing of the summer by bringing in Eben Etzebeth and he is added to a list of Springbok stars. Ox Nche, Thomas du Toit and Bongi Mbonambi form possibly the best front row of any team in the competition and can go toe to toe with the power that the French sides bring.
Siya Kolisi, Jaden Hendrikse, Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am are all some of the superstar Springboks who could power this team forward. The Sharks have a huge home field advantage as well as few teams will be keen on travelling to South Africa for knockout games.
This team can be very dangerous in the competition and are certainly a team to watch.
When you talk about the power of French teams Montpellier is one of those sides with a lot of power behind them. Karl Tu’inukuafe is a massive addition and he adds a huge amount of power to a front row that features guys like Mohamed Haouas and Henry Thomas.
The lock combination of Paul Willemse and Nico Janse van Rensburg is one of the best in the competition and Montpellier have a phenomenal back row headed by Zach Mercer who will be departing at the end of the season.
Paolo Garbisi will play a crucial role in this teams success as he is undoubtably the teams number one option at fly-half with Handre Pollard leaving in the summer to join Leicester.
Their group of backs also features talent like Louis Carbonel, George Bridge and Arthur Vincent.
Eventual champions La Rochelle were the team that knocked out Montpellier last season and they have a huge amount of talent who will be out for revenge this season.
Players to watch
I am very much looking forward to seeing Christian Wade back playing rugby. After a four year stint trying to forge a career in the NFL, Wade has returned to rugby with Racing 92. He has hit the ground running in the Top 14 and looks back to his best with his incredible acceleration and agility.
Wade is a key piece of a star studded Racing 92 backline. With guys like Gael Fickou and Francis Saili in the centres and some powerful runners upfront, Wade should get some opportunities out wide and could finish as the tournaments top try scorer by seasons end.
The Stormers have a real chance of competing at the highest level of this competition and the play of Libbok will be crucial to their success. This competition should be a great opportunity for Libbok to show that he can perform at the highest level against international talent.
The Springboks number 10 shirt is still up for grabs and if Libbok can unleash the attack of the Stormers he could be the starter for the World Cup in 2023. This is a huge opportunity for the 25 year old and he could be one of the standout stars of the competition.
The Exeter lock is back healthy for this season and could be part of an exciting Exeter team who could surprise a few people this season. If they do you would imagine that Tshiunza will play a crucial role in a this side.
At just 20 years old, you would imagine that Tshiunza will be playing in the Champions Cup for a long time and this could be the tournament that puts him on the map internationally. The 6ft 6in forward is freakishly athletic for his size, with the speed he possesses making it very difficult to stop him.
With the majority of opposition defence likely to be concerned about the devastating running of Sam Simmonds, Tshiunza could get a lot of opportunities in space this season and I think this could be a great competition for him.
Pool Games to watch
Having the format whittled down to two Pools of 12 means there are some incredibly interesting home and away series that we will see take place in the pool stage.
Leinster vs Racing 92
Leinster are certainly one of the favourites for the title and they have a tough task in the pool stage with two games against Racing 92. Racing are a star studded team who have the ability to cause an upset on any day considering the magic that Finn Russell is often able to produce.
While it seems unlikely, Racing could steal a game against Leinster and make the Irish sides journey to the final just that slight bit more difficult.
Exeter Chiefs vs Bulls
We have never seen English domestic sides take on South African domestic sides like this before and I think the matchup up the Chiefs against the Bulls could be phenomenal. Both teams have international talent in their group of backs, with the Bulls possessing possibly the scariest wing partnership in the world.
The Chiefs will feel as though the Bulls are weaker upfront in the scrum and Exeter made a huge splash when they signed Wallaby Scott Sio for the 2022/23 season. Not only that, but the Chiefs have young guys like Christ Tshuinza, Dafydd Jenkins and Josh Hodge who will be looking to make a name for themselves.
Home advantage will play a big factor in this matchup but I think It could be one of the most interesting matchups of the entire pool stage and certainly a pair of games you don’t want to miss out on.