Why Saracens won't retain the Champions Cup
Even putting to one side the fact that they may have to prioritise the Premiership and play some of their younger players in Europe, the knock-on effect of the World Cup is going to be significant in this season’s Champions Cup.
The entirety of the pool stages is crammed into just nine weeks either side of Christmas and the first four rounds will be played out over the next five weeks, so the Irish and French sides will have an advantage as their star players have had more time since their last international match.
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It remains to be seen what state of mind some of the England players will be in and how long it will take them to get back into the swing of things but Mark McCall has already said that Owen Farrell will only return when he is “relishing rugby again”.
Given the limited number of club games that some of Saracens’ stars are able to play this season and the need to potentially battle for points on the domestic front more than usual, it’s only natural to question how much of a challenge they can muster on the European front.
When you add to that the fact they’re in the group of death with Racing, Munster and Ospreys, it does look tough for them but I’m still backing them to get through as a best runner-up.
Even if Maro Itoje and George Kruis are missing, you have the likes of Will Skelton and Nick Isiekwe filling their boots. They may have an issue with Alex Goode and Max Malins out but Manu Vunipola is steering the ship well at the moment and Farrell could be used if qualification is on the line in January.
Saracens have been England’s sole representative in the knockout stages for the past couple of seasons but I think a couple of teams are ready to step up and join them this time around.
Many people have been burned before by tipping Exeter in Europe and they have just one quarter-final to show for their efforts in six previous top tier campaigns but I think the Chiefs will top their pool ahead of Glasgow, La Rochelle and Sale.
And, it might surprise a few people but I think Northampton could get out of a tough looking Pool 1. Leinster are topping that one with their European pedigree and Lyon are flying in the Top 14 at the moment but I just have a feeling Saints could sneak through as a best runner-up.
Clermont have so often been the bridesmaids at this level but they won the Challenge Cup last season and reached the Top 14 final. This could be their year and I see them leading the way in Pool 3.
If we’re looking for a player to watch in the pool stages as well, then look no further than Alivereti Raka. He shone at the World Cup when given the chance and has been making defenders look daft in the Top 14 for years now. Good luck stopping him.
I fancy the French teams to get through in Pool 5 too. Toulouse have been on fire for a while now and Montpellier have flattered to deceive in Europe in the past but I think they could join them in the last eight as a best runner-up.
Munster fans won’t like me for saying this but I think Racing have the edge in Pool 4 with the form they’ve shown in the Champions Cup in recent seasons and I just have that feeling that Saracens, despite their troubles, might rally late on and sneak through.
It’s going to be a hell of a European season once more but the World Cup hangover will have an impact and I’m picking the French to make up half of this year’s quarter-finalists. Who’d have thought it!
Goode’s Champions Cup Quarter-Finalists
By Andy Goode, Rugbypass