The 2017-18 European Rugby Champions Cup begins Oct. 12 and concludes with the final in Bilbao in Spain next May. Saracens are the defending champions, having won their second title in succession at the end of last season, and they are favourites this year, too.
The European Rugby Champions Cup format is as in recent seasons. There are five pools, with five winners and three best runners-up on points making the quarterfinals, seeded by best record in group stages. The four group winners with the best records get home advantage for the quarter finals.
The pools are as follows, in seeding order within each pool (the key thing to note here is that there are three extremely tough groups:
1 Wasps, La Rochelle, Ulster, Harlequins
One of the two “softer”-looking pools, minus a French powerhouse.
2 Saracens, Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys, Northampton
This pool contains last season’s winners plus the runners-up in three of the last five years in Clermont.
3 Exeter, Leinster, Montpellier, Glasgow
A tough pool containing the Aviva and Pro 12 champions, the leaders of the new Pro 14 and an extremely well-funded top French side.
4 Munster, Racing92, Leicester, Castres
One of the easier pools, with the weakest of the French sides in Castres, a transitional English side in Leicester and a Racing side that were eliminated in the pool last year.
5 Toulon, Scarlets, Bath, Benetton
Three contenders here led by Toulon, three times ERCC winners in recent years, the defending Pro 12 champions from Wales and a developing Bath side.
A couple of structural points to note:
It is a long domestic season, and a number of the higher-profile players in the home unions have played through the summer for the Lions in New Zealand. Squad depth is going to be extremely important particularly after the six nations where attrition rates are likely to be high. English clubs operate a tight salary cap, and there is upward pressure on player salaries (competition from France, notably). Squad depth in this environment is not what it was for several English teams, and Saracens, albeit best placed to withstand the trend, look very short to “threepeat” this season.
The French sides contain some players who have not been on the go all summer, and with a less restrictive salary cap have a clearer run at this competition. However, the age-old bugaboo of their sides not travelling well remains an issue.
The key to ante-post value here is to try to find a team in one of the two weaker groups where it is less likely that teams will be taking points off each other and therefore where the fall back of being one of the three best runners-up is more likely than a group where there are three genuine contenders. These two groups are Pools 1 and 4 headed by Wasps and Munster, and my focus is on Munster.
Munster topped their pool last year with five wins out of six, beat Toulouse at home in the quarterfinals and lost at Saracens in the semifinal. Their pool this time is winnable. In the last couple of years there has been a resurgence, after five plus years in the doldrums, for the two main Irish provinces. Leinster and Munster have been at or near the top of the Pro 12/14 and reaching the knockout stages of the ERCC.
Munster have a fierce home advantage at Thomond Park at Limerick and are a strong side whose core (Murray, Stander, O’Mahoney at 6,8,9) are world-class players. A very competitive side that I think will win their group and obtain a home quarterfinal.
From there, it's impossible to predict if the path to a final would have to run through a French team or Saracens away (as it did last season), but having one of the more comfortable looking groups bodes well for a high seeding and home advantage for as long as possible.Free Rugby Pick: Munster 14/1 To Win Each WayBest Line Offered: William Hill