Champions Cup preview: Pools 2, 3 & 4
Dan Carter will orchestrate things for a dangerous looking Racing 92 side (image via: europe1.fr)

With Toulon once more the team to beat, pools 2, 3 & 4 contain a trio of French sides who look set to end the Rouge et Noir's dominance in the Champions Cup.

Perenial bridesmades Clermont, French champions Stade Francais and their Paris neighbours Racing 92 are amongst the favourites to topple the mighty Toulon this year in Europe.

Clermont's home dominance could prove crucial in Pool 2 qualification

Playing in front of their fervent at the Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont are one of the Champions Cup favourites once more, yet are still to prove they can pass the final hurdle. Currently sitting atop of the Top 14, Clermont return a number of stars including Damien Chouly, Wesley Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie who are still looking for their first European crown. The French side have added David Strettle and Scott Spedding to their back three ranks after losing Napolioni Nalaga to Lyon.

Wesley Fofana has been a constant presence in the Clermont backline (image via: rugbyrama.fr)

English side Exeter go from strength-to-strength in the Aviva Premiership and look ready to have their best showing in Europe's premier cup competition this year. England youngsters Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell will be key to the Chiefs hopes, with veteran lock Geoff Parling an excellent replacement for the departed Dean Mumm.

Bordeaux-Begles qualified for the Champions Cup after coming through a thrilling playoff with Gloucester at Sixways at the back-end of last season. Wallaby duo Sekope Kepu and Adam Ashley-Cooper will need to make instant impacts if Bordeaux are to progress, with Metuisela Talebula and Sofiane Guitoune possible game-changers on the wings.

The Ospreys are not the force of old, yet are still the best bet for a Welsh quarter-final side. Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate help form a formidable pack who should be stronger at scrum time after the signing of Paul James from Bath. Scrum-half Rhys Webb is out long-term pinning even more pressure on Dan Biggar who proved at the World Cup that he is one of the top fly-halves on the planet.

Racing setup to go all the way

With the likes of Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse having fronted the French challenge in Europe for the last decade, Racing 92 look set to join them deep into the knockout stages of the Champions Cup. When Dan Carter finally arrives, he will join a squad who have very few holes. Up front, Eddy Ben Arous is one of the world's top looseheads and may play opposite Ben Tameifuna who has enjoyed success with the Chiefs in Super Rugby.

Wenceslas Lauret is possibly the most underrated flankers in Europe, and is joined in the back-row stocks by Chris Masoe, Bernard le Roux and Yannick Nyanga. Carter should bring the best out of a young backline which includes flyers Joe Rokocoko, Teddy Thomas, Brice Dulin and Pumas' World Cup hero Juan Imhoff.

Pro 12 champions, the Glasgow Warriors choked last season in Europe, throwing away a strong start to miss out on the knockout stages. With Sean Maitland and Niko Matawalu headed to English clubs, Gregor Townsend added Fijian giant Taqele Naiyaravoro who took Super Rugby by storm last season. The winger has already made an impression for the Warriors who will be relying on Leone Nakarawa to give them front-foot ball once more.

Northampton have not looked themselves at the start of the Premiership season, and currently sit 10th after four matches. The change to European matters may help them to turn their poor start around for what is clearly a squad full of talent. Losing Samu Manoa could prove impossible to overcome, yet the forward pack still contains the likes of Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Victor Matfield. Luther Burrell has a lot to prove after his World Cup omission and will be the driving force for a Saints backline who hope to have a fully-fit Ben Foden back to his best.

The anticipated return of Clermont centre Jonathan Davies will add hope to a Scarlets squad who have tonnes of potential. Davies will join a squad which includes Welsh stars Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Liam Williams and Scott Williams. Young flanker James Davies has been pulling up trees in the Pro 12, whilst DTH van der Merwe can't stop scoring after his incredible World Cup exploits.

Big names looking to rebound after falling behind

15 years ago, a pool including Munster, Leicester and Stade Francais would have been unthinkable. The three clubs have fallen behind over recent seasons and the battle to qualify from Pool 4 will be a fascinating watch.

Last seasons French champions Stade Francais have had a rough start to this campaign so far, with five defeats from their eight games. The return of influential captain Sergio Parisse will be crucial to Stade's hopes, with new signings Willem Alberts and Will Genia destined to make an impact alongside young Sekou Macalou who big things are expected from.

The loss of Paul O'Connell has not hampered Munster so far, who have registered six wins from their first seven Pro 12 fixtures. Conor Murray will be integral for the Irish province who have added Kiwi Franis Saili which should add spark to the back-line.

A new-look Leicester Tigers squad have been below par for the past couple of seasons and are hoping for big change under new coach Aaron Mauger. Tom Youngs, Marcos Ayerza and Dan Cole will anchor the forward pack who hope to get front foot ball for the likes of Vereniki Goneva and recent addition Jean de Villiers who will add much needed experience. Peter Betham has made a decent start to his Tigers career, with the Midland club still awaiting the return of Manu Tuilagi who has missed substantial playing time over the past few seasons.

Benetton Treviso are the lone Italian side in the competition and will provide a stern test when playing on their home turf. Italy internationals Edoardo Gori, Luca Morisi and Francesco Minto will be crucial to Treviso's hopes.

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