'Open and unpredictable' – Guscott's European Champions Cup guide


Saracens captain Brad Barritt lifted the trophy last season after a 28-17 win over Clermont

In the past five years, the European Champions Cup has been under a duopoly.

Saracens have won the past two titles, successfully defending the trophy in May with victory over Clermont.

Before that, big-spending French superpowers Toulon won an unprecedented three in a row between 2012 and 2015.

But a new season brings new contenders.

Might the new money of Montpellier – under the guidance of former Scotland coach Vern Cotter – sweep to the top of the European game?

Meanwhile, English champions Exeter are turning their sights to a continental challenge, and the twin Irish threat of Leinster and Munster will want to go at least one better than last season’s semi-final defeats.

Or could Scarlets land the trophy for the first time for Wales on the back of a thrilling Pro12 triumph in May?

It will be a long, entertaining and intriguing road to the final in Bilbao on 12 May.

Pool 1: Harlequins, Ulster, La Rochelle, Wasps

The Champions Cup is a formidable competition whoever you are, wherever you come from and whatever your pedigree.

And this group typifies how open and unpredictable it can be.

On their best form, all of the teams in Pool 1 are going to fancy their chances.

La Rochelle are a coming force in France.

They finished top of the Top 14 in the regular season last campaign and have won five out of seven at the start of this.

A lot will depend on whether they fight on two fronts or instead choose to focus their resources on winning their domestic title, which carries greater cache in France.

Wasps are starting to really exert themselves in continental competition, building on campaigns year after year, just as Saracens did successfully in the run-up to their first European title in 2016.

But if they are to better last season’s run to the final eight, they will have to overcome a rotten run of injuries that left them without 15 players – including fly-half Danny Cipriani – at the beginning of this month, and an indifferent start to this campaign.

Ulster have been quiet in Europe for the past few seasons after that run to the 2012 final, but are under a new coach in Jono Gibbes, who won this tournament three times in his time on Leinster’s backroom staff and has more recently been involved in Clermont’s assault on the business end of the Champions Cup.

Player to watch: Marcus Smith (Harlequins)

Smith became the second-youngest debutant fly-half in Premiership history when he started against London Irish in February

After he was promoted to England’s senior training squad earlier this year, there is understandably a lot of excitement around 18-year-old Marcus Smith.

Having made the step up to the Quins first team so early and promisingly, it will be interesting to see what he can do at this higher level of competition.

He is small for a modern fly-half but he doesn’t go missing at all in defence. Attacking-wise, he has a very complete skillset. He has great vision, great hands, pace, a step and a nose for a gap – he’s an all-round threat.

Pool 2: Clermont, Northampton, Ospreys, Saracens

Since losing to that sensational Leinster rally in the 2011 final, Northampton keep threatening to mount a European campaign without managing to deliver on the pitch.

Even with the totemic French number eight Louis Picamoles at Franklin’s Gardens last season, they finished bottom of Pool 4. And they are missing his cannonball runs this time around after Montpellier tempted him back home.

All in all it is difficult seeing either Saints or Ospreys getting much change from Clermont and Saracens, who contested last year’s final.

Who tops the pool might well come down to who travels better and the December double-header when Clermont and Saracens meet on successive weekends will be a seismic couple of matches.

Player to watch: Piers Francis (Northampton)

Francis missed the start of the season with a jaw injury

The Northampton centre was playing for the Auckland Blues last season – but missed the New Zealand franchise’s match against the British and Irish Lions to accept a call-up to England’s tour of Argentina.