Our rugby scribe takes a look at the outright betting for the 2016/17 European Rugby Champions Cup.
The Southern Hemisphere’s domestic rugby season is fast approaching its close with the Currie Cup final only two weeks away and the ITM Cup final a week after that. Fret not though rugby fans as we’ve got the European Rugby Champions Cup to get us through the Southern Hemisphere's imminent domestic sabbatical.
The European Rugby Champions Cup, which took over from the Heineken Cup in 2014, is fast growing in popularity. Last year’s final at the Nou Camp saw a record crowd attendance for a non-international rugby match with over 95 000 people walking through the turnstiles of the world famous football ground.
The tournament has also grown in quality over the last two years with the likes of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Bryan Habana all participating in the last edition. There has been a further influx of playing talent this year with Schalk Burger set to turn out for Saracens, Nemani Nadolo now plying his trade with Montpellier, and both Kurtley Beale and Willie le Roux now on the books of Wasps.
To Win Outright
Saracens 5/2 | Racing Metro 9/2 | Toulon 9/2 | London Wasps 6/1 | Clermont 7/1 | Montpellier 12/1 | Toulouse 14/1 | Exeter 25/1 | Leicester 25/1 | Leinster 25/1 | Northampton 30/1 | Ulster 33/1
Those familiar with the UEFA Champions League will be accustomed to the format the European Rugby Champions Cup follows. The competition opens with a group phase which consists of home and away matches. The group phase runs from Friday the 14th of October 2016 and Sunday the 22nd of January 2017. There are five pools with the winner of each pool advancing to the quarter-finals along with the three best-placed runners-up from the five pools.
The knock-out phase starts on the 31st of March. Four quarter-finals are played with the top four seeded teams enjoying a home quarter-final. Then it’s on to the semis, which get underway on the 21st of April. While the final will be played at Murrayfield on Saturday the 13th of May.
Pool 1: Glasgow Warriors, Leicester Tigers, Munster Rugby, and Racing Metro
Predicted Group Winner: Leicester Tigers
Pool 2: Connacht, Toulouse, London Wasps, and Zebre
Predicted Group Winner: London Wasps
Pool 3: Toulon, Sale Sharks, Saracens, and Scarlets
Predicted Group Winner: Saracens
Pool 4: Castres Olympique, Leinster Rugby, Montpellier, and Northampton Saints
Predicted Group Winner: Montpellier
Pool 5: ASM Clermont Auvergne, Bordeaux-Begles, Exeter Chiefs, and Ulster Rugby
Predicted Group Winner: ASM Clermont
The defending Champions enjoyed a stellar 2015/16 campaign winning both the European Rugby Champions Cup as well as the Aviva Premiership. Whether they can repeat the feat this time around is up for debate, especially considering how hectic a playing schedule the majority of their squad is going to have to contend with.
The Vunipola brothers, Jamie George, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, and Richard Wigglesworth are all likely to feature for England during the November incoming Tests and next year’s Six Nations. And while Saracens have a deep squad with the likes of Alex Lozowski, Vincent Koch and Schalk Burger brought in to strengthen the ranks, I can’t help but feel there stalwarts exertions with the English national side will somewhat handicap the Wolf Pack.
The other English side who are among the bookies favourites are the London Wasps. The Coventry club has once again splashed the cash in the off-season bringing Australian playmaker Kurtley Beale, South Africa’s happiest pair of feet in Willie le Roux, and enigmatic Englishman Danny Cipriani.
While Beale and le Roux are yet to don the yellow and white jersey – the former is still recovering from a patella tendon tear while the latter will only join once he’s fulfilled his contract with Japanese club Canon Eagles.
While Le Roux and Beale will miss the majority of the pool stage of the tournament, this Wasps side should have more than enough in reserve to see them qualify for the knock-out phase. Beale and le Roux’s late debuts could be more of a blessing than a handicap. If the duo hit the ground running, then they could well guide Wasps to European glory.
On to the French sides now. And when you’re talking French rugby, there’s no bigger name than Toulon. The French giants had a bit of a season to forget last time around and will be desperate to put their quarter-final exit behind them.
I’m not going to go too in-depth in the Toulon segment of this piece as I feel it’s not going to be Toulon’s year. They may have the pedigree, they may have the squad, but they just don’t have the cohesion to go all the way in the tournament.
Any side that contains Dan Carter is in with a shout of winning silverware. Factor in the likes of Joe Rockocko, Johan Goosen, and Juan Imhoff and you’ve got a backline capable of outclassing any opposition. They had a decent run in the tournament last season, making it all the way to the final before going down 21-9 to Saracens.
Racing definitely have the playing personnel to go all the way in the tournament. Their stalwarts have also retired from the international team so they won’t be as hard hit as others, come the end of the year tours and the Six Nations. The only issue which they really face is Dan Carter picking up an injury. The Autumn of Carter’s career has been littered with niggly injuries that seem to occur once every three months. If the maestro can remain fit, then Racing have every chance of lifting the cup this term.
The Dark Horses
Don’t let the 25/1 price tag fool you, Exeter have every chance of winning this tournament. They have a formidable forward pack and a backline stocked with some of England’s finest young talent including utility backs Ollie Devoto and Henry Slade.
The majority of this Exeter squad were involved in last year’s run to the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals and the Aviva Premiership final.
So, you’ve got a squad who are a year older and a year wiser. But that’s not it. The capture of Ollie Devoto from Bath could prove to the coup of the year. The 23-year-old Yeovil native is as strong as an ox and reads the game like a librarian. His partnership with Henry Slade could blossom into something really special for both club and country.
It is not only the Exeter backline that contains promising partnerships, however. The Chiefs' back row of Kiwi juggernaut Thomas ‘The Tank’ Waldrom, former Western Province man Don Armand, and Mitch Lees are one of the most well-balanced loose trios in the tournament. Coach, Rob Baxter also has so many quality locking combinations, that he could loan out half his locks and still have enough cover to overcome a second-row injury crisis.
Can you call a 7/1 shot a true dark horse? Well, for the sake of this piece we will. Clermont have enjoyed a stellar start to their domestic campaign this term only suffering one defeat in their opening eight fixtures. They’ve managed some impressive victories including a 47-10 home win over defending Top 14 champions, Racing.
While they have been drawn in a tough pool alongside Exeter and a much improved Ulster outfit, the wily old heads in their squad should ensure they avoid last year’s pantomime pool showing and make it through to the next phase of the tournament.
You can’t speak about wily old characters and not mention New Zealand journeyman Fritz Lee. The bulldozer of a number eight has been highly impressive this term and seems a man rejuvenated. His and Flip van der Merve’s ability to physically dominate opposition packs will be the key to getting Clermont’s exciting backline going.
Exciting may actually be an understatement when it comes to describing this Clermont backline. I think “electrifying” is a better term to describe the Clermont skinnies. While pivot Camile Lopez will be tasked with dictating proceedings, the back three will be the ones who provide the spark. Englishmen Nick Abendanon and David Strettle are part of this back three and they both have enough X-factor to spark a fire in a rain forest.
Verdict: Saracens 5/2
I think the French clubs will struggle again this year. The ridiculous amount of domestic games they play in a season severely handicaps their chances. Despite their stalwarts international commitments, Saracens will still be a runner. If you were to have big strike on an outright winner, I’d suggest putting your money on the North London club.
Value Bet: Exeter 25/1For those in search of a big price, I recommend backing the Exeter Chiefs at 25/1. They have a competent squad who are more than capable of lifting the trophy.