It’s a new look Champions Cup with the three best South African sides from last year’s United Rugby Championship season joining the fray ths term. Darry Worthingtons shares his outright preview.
To Win Tournament
La Rochelle 13/2
Racing Metro 15/2
Sale Sharks 50/1
London Irish 250/1
The 2022/23 edition of the Champions Cup will feature 24 sides with eight French teams, three South African teams, eight English teams, three Irish teams, a Scottish outfit and a Welsh side making up the complement.
Here is where things get a bit tricky. There are two pools featuring 12 teams each. The 24 participating sides are allocated a a tier (1-4) based on their respective performances in the knockout phase of their domestic league. The tiers are broken down as follows:
- Tier 1 (6 clubs): first and second-ranked clubs from each league
- Tier 2 (6 clubs): third and fourth-ranked clubs from each league
- Tier 3 (6 clubs): fifth and sixth-ranked clubs from each league
- Tier 4 (6 clubs): seventh and eighth-ranked clubs from each league
Clubs from the same league cannot play against one another in the pool phase, and can only play against clubs in the same pool.
The Tier 1 clubs and the Tier 4 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league, play one another home and away.
The Tier 2 clubs and the Tier 3 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league, play one another home and away.
The eight highest-ranked clubs in each pool will advance to the Round of 16. Four points will be awarded for a in, two for a draw and bonus points are awarded to clubs for scoring four tries or more and to clubs who lose by seven points or fewer.
Racing 92 (FRA)
La Rochelle (FRA)
London Irish (ENG)
Sale Sharks (ENG)
France are well represented in the tournament with eight Top 14 French sides set to feature. All eight of their teams are in with a real sniff of making the knock-out phase, such is the strength of French rugby at the minute.
While all the French outfits are competent, there are a couple of standouts. The strongest of the bunch are current Top 14 log-leaders, Toulouse. They are stacked with French talent including dynamic halfback pairing Ramin Ntamack and Antoine Dupont.
Another Top 14 outfit that may mount a real title challenge is Montpellier. The reigning Top 14 champions have had a poor start to their domestic league and currently lie fifth on the Top 14 ladder. They are also loaded with international talent with internationals Cobus Reinach, Paolo Garbasi and George Bridge all on their books.
The last French side that I fancy to mount a challenge is the resurgent Racing 92. The Parisian outfit has been tearing it up during the early salvos of the Top 14 and currently lie second in their domestic league. They are laden with talent which includes the likes of the mercurial Finn Russel and Virimi Vakatawa, two of the hottest properties plying their trades in France.
With all the drama going on with the English National side and the mire the Gallagher Premiership finds itself in, European rugby could be the perfect distraction for the English outfits.
While all the French sides look like they can compete, it won’t be the same story for the English with London Irish, Northampton, Gloucester and possibly Exeter set to make early exits from the tournament. The likes of Leicester and Harlequins are also expected to make it no further than the quarter-finals.
The two sides that I think are in with a real sniff of going the distance are Saracens and Sale. Saracens, who currently top the Gallagher Premiership standings by some distance, have a vastly experienced side with a number of players who were involved in their 2018-19 Cup winning campaign still featuring in their match day 23.
Sale are also loaded with experienced talent although, unlike Saracens, most of their talent is foreign rather than English. The Sharks are enjoying a solid time of it in the Gallagher Premiership and currently lie second in the standings. If they can carry their domestic form over to Europe then they may well go deep in the Champions Cup.
The Irish – well, at least Leinster – have been tearing it up in the Heineken Cup over the past few years making three of the last five finals. They have only got one win in that time period when they beat Racing 92 15-12 back in the 2017/18 season.
They failed to repeat the trick in last year’s final as they went down 24-21 to La Rochelle in a pulsating affair. I expect Leinster to mount a real challenge again this year with their incredibly deep and experienced squad.
Munster could also well be in with a shout of at least a quarter-final berth. While they’ve had a really sluggish start to their URC campaign – they’ve only won four of the nine games they have played – they have a serious-looking squad and a number of their heavyweight players are returning from injury and starting to find a bit of form. The likes of Keith Earls and Andrew Conway are on the mend, while RG Snyman is set to return in the new year.
Ulster could also well find themselves in the quarter-finals. They got their URC campaign off to a flyer winning six of the eight fixtures they have played. They have a very handy squad which features some really underrated talent in Billy Burns and John Cooney.
South Africa’s journey from Super Rugby to Europe’s elite comes full circle this weekend with the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers set to test themselves against the best that the north has to offer.
While the trio has played against the Irish, Scottish and Welsh outfits who will be running out in this comp, this will be the first time they test themselves against their French and English counterparts in a truly competitive match.
We’ll take a look at the Stormers first as they have had the most success in Europe so far, with the men from the Cape winning last season’s URC title. John Dobson’s men have built nicely on that trophy win and are playing with a freedom that only success can buy you.
They have been full of running in this year’s URC, which has reaped dividends for them as they currently lie third on the log with six wins and a draw from their nine outings. The Western Cape outfit boast arguably form fly-half in the URC at the moment, with Mannie Libbok positively thriving.
The danger for the Cape side is that their attacking game might not be as successful against the French and English sides as it is against their URC opponents. This is a reality as the French, in particular, have the attacking talent to mix it with the URC champs as well as the defensive nuance to nullify them.
While the Stormers haven’t been afraid to give the ball air this term, the Bulls have continued along the pragmatic route that has seen them win almost every domestic trophy possible since rugby returned from its COVID break.
European success has been slightly harder for the Bulls to attain with Jake White’s men going down to Treviso in the Rainbow Cup back in 2021 while they lost to the Stormers in the 2022 United Rugby Championship final.
The Champions Cup may actually be the Bulls’ best chance to break their duck.
They should easily negotiate the pool phase and their style of rugby will really suit the knock-out phase of the tournament. Also, if they have home-ground advantage for most of their knock-out phase then they’ll be an extremely tough nut to crack. Loftu is a nightmare to play high-stakes games at for visiting teams. especially against a Bulls side that contains so much experienced talent.
The final South Africa side that’s in the Heineken Cup mix is the underperforming Sharks. The KZN side have spent heaps in bringing big name players to Durban but have yet to reap any dividends. While not sending the union into turmoil, the stepping down of Sean Everitt after the 0-35 loss to Cardiff came at a far-from-ideal time.
On the positive side, the Sharks did bounce back with a solid performance beating the Ospreys 25-10 this past weekend. They have the talent to have a real go at the Cup but I think they’re at least a year out from getting to the business end – which for my money is the quarter-finals of the comp.
Scotland and Wales
With the South African sides entering the competition, we’ve seen Scottish and Welsh representation significantly dropping with Edinburgh representing Scotland’s hopes and the Ospreys defending Welsh aspirations.
To be brutally honest, I can’t see either of these sides really doing anything significant in the competition. I reckon the Ospreys will bow out in the pool phase and head on down to the Challenge Cup, while Edinburgh may just manage to sneak into the round of 16 but I can’t see them getting further than that.
Verdict: Toulouse 11/2
There are three sides that really stand out for me; Leinster, the Bulls and Toulouse. Toulouse and Leinster are right at the top of the betting boards for a reason. I do fancy the French outfit over their Irish counterparts as I just feel their young dynamic French halfback pairing are set for an almighty year.
Value Bet: Bulls 33/1
I think the real value lies in the Bulls, however. They have a coach who has worked in France and knows how French sides play. They also have a vastly experienced squad, which contains players that have played their trades in England and France. Ultimately, though, the price is just too big on the Bulls not to have a go on them.