European Rugby Champions Cup 2017-18: pool-by-pool guide | Gerard Meagher

Pool 1

Harlequins, La Rochelle, Ulster, Wasps

La Rochelle – after their surprise emergence in the Top 14 – make their debut in the competition, while Harlequins return for the first time since 2014-15. Both Quins and Wasps are badly hit by injuries, making advancing out of the pool all the more difficult, but the latter have progressed in each of the past three seasons, coming unstuck against Leinster in the quarter-finals last term. Ulster have not made it out of the pools since 2014 but do have Charles Piutau, who often saves his best performances for the European stage, in their ranks. La Rochelle also have a number of New Zealanders at their disposal and, while they are rookies at this level, they are the team to beat.

Players to watch Marcus Smith (Harlequins), Kevin Gourdon (La Rochelle), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)

Predicted pool winners La Rochelle

Opening fixtures Ulster v Wasps Friday, 7.45pm; Harlequins v La Rochelle Saturday, 5.30pm

Pool 2

Clermont, Northampton, Ospreys, Saracens

The two-times defending champions up against last season’s beaten finalists and such is the format of the competition, it is entirely conceivable either Saracens or Clermont do not make it to the last eight. Northampton squeezed through the backdoor after finishing seventh last term but have recovered impressively from their opening-day thrashing at the hands of Saracens and host them on Sunday. Saints have been pretty dire in Europe in the last couple of years but how Saracens and Clermont – for whom Wesley Fofana is expected to return imminently – fare against them may determine the pool winners. The Ospreys have started the season in awful form but do have four British & Irish Lions who toured New Zealand, adding a bit of spice to their clashes with Saracens, who have six.

Players to watch Alivereti Raka (Clermont), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Keelan Giles (Ospreys)

Predicted pool winners Clermont

Opening fixtures Northampton v Saracens Sunday, 5.30pm; Ospreys v Clermont 5.30pm

Pool 3

Exeter, Glasgow, Leinster, Montpellier

Perhaps the most intriguing pool of the lot. Exeter are the Premiership champions, have started the season well and are determined to make their mark in Europe. Montpellier, however, may just be the most intimidating team on the continent, boasting so much power with Louis Picamoles, Nemani Nadolo and the Du Plessis brothers, as well as the shrewd guidance of Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden at half-back. And that’s before we come on to their coach, Vern Cotter. Leinster have won the European Cup three times and their impressive crop of youngsters will be all the better for their run to the semi-finals in 2016-17. Glasgow make up the group and, under Dave Rennie, they are the only unbeaten side in Europe’s top three leagues this season.

Players to watch Sam Simmonds (Exeter), Jack Conan (Leinster), Yacouba Camara (Montpellier)

Predicted pool winners Exeter

Opening fixtures Leinster v Montpellier Saturday, 1pm; Exeter v Glasgow 7.45pm

Pool 4

Castres, Leicester, Munster, Racing 92

A familiar-looking pool, with Leicester, Munster and Racing grouped together last season. Racing reached the final in 2016 but have gone off the boil since then, Munster and Leicester are both sides in transition and Castres are renowned for being poor travellers in Europe. It means this pool is wide open and, while Leicester’s much-vaunted backline is coming together nicely, there are concerns over their forward power on away trips to Paris and Limerick. It is likely that Munster will see the best of their new coach, Johann van Graan– who begins work next month – next season, so perhaps this is the term that the Tigers roar in Europe again. Or maybe even Castres if they can cure their travel sickness.

Players to watch Ellis Genge (Leicester), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Pat Lambie (Racing)

Predicted pool winners Leicester

Opening fixtures Racing v Leicester Saturday, 3.15pm; Castres v Munster Sunday, 1pm

Pool 5

Bath, Scarlets, Toulon, Treviso

With what is now the sole Italian team in the competition, this is supposed to be the most straightforward pool. But both Treviso and Zebre have chalked up some eye-catching wins so far this season. That said, it is hard not to see this pool as a three-horse race, with Scarlets having started the Pro14 in a similar vein to how they finished last term. Leigh Halfpenny’s kicking could also be key against his former team Toulon and one heavily linked with him over the summer, Bath. The latter have plenty of injury troubles and Freddie Burns’s suspension gives them a problem at fly-half, while Toulon are a fading force in Europe but still have a host of star names, including Chris Ashton.

Players to watch Sam Underhill (Bath), Steff Evans (Scarlets), Semi Radradra (Toulon)

Predicted pool winners Scarlets

Opening fixtures Bath v Treviso Saturday, 5.30pm; Toulon v Scarlets Sunday, 3.15pm

News source: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/oct/12/european-rugby-champions-cup-2017-18-pool-by-pool-guide