Five things to look out for as Champions Cup rugby returns

Five things to look out for as Champions Cup rugby returns

European club rugby is back, and there are plenty of things to watch for in the opening round of competition

Tom Hiscott

European club rugby returns this weekend, and there are plenty of things to look out for, especially in the Champions Cup.

English and French teams dominated the competition last year, taking all of the quarter-final positions between them, with Saracens eventually coming out on top in a hard-fought final with Racing 92 in Lyon

With a number of new players jetting in from the Southern Hemisphere, and a seemingly revitalised challenge coming from the Pro 12 clubs, this season's competition has the potential to be among the best ever. 

Can French and English sides continue to rule the roost?

Last season, four of the five groups were won by English clubs, with Racing, Toulon and Stade Francais joining them alongisde Exeter in the quarter-finals. 

Clerrmont currently lead the way in France's Top 14 (image source: Jean Paul Thomas/Contributor/Getty Images)

The talent available to those from the Premiership and Top 14 continues to grow, and the disparity in wealth in comparison to the Pro 12 clubs saw the gap widen last season. 

The seven French and six English clubs in this season's Champions Cup will be under pressure to repeat the trick of last year, with the Celtic clubs doing their best to fight back. 

Are the Irish provinces ready to rebound?

Without doubt, the most disappointing of the Celtic nations last season were Ireland. The trio of Ulster, Leinster and Munster have a long and distinguished history in Europe's top tier competition, yet they could only register eight wins between them in the group stage last time out. 

Les Kiss's Ulster currently lead the way in the Pro 12, having won five of their first six fixtures and they find themselves in a tough pool alongside Exeter, Clermont and Bordeaux. Charles Piutau misses out this weekend, yet the team still possess a star-studded backline as well as a pack which includes the marrauding Iain Henderson.

A new-look Munster have been handed a difficult opening fixture away at 2015 runners-up Racing in Paris where they will go head-to-head with Munster legend Ronan O'Gara who is part of the French side's coaching staff. 

Like Ulster, Leinster have also won five of their Pro 12 fixtures to date, and with a centre paring of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose they should improve on last year's results, while Pat Lam's Connacht could surprise a few after winning the Pro 12 last term. 

Can Nemani Nadolo and others take Europe by storm?

There are a number of new players to look out for in this season's competition who are ready to take Europe by storm.

None come bigger and more destructive than Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo who now plies his trade for Montpellier. 6ft 5ins tall and close to 20st in weight, Nadolo was a phenom in Super Rugby for the Crusaders and is now ready to wreak havoc on defences around Europe. 

Nemani Nadolo has already been in good form for Montpellier (image source: Pascal Guyot/Staff/Getty Images)

Elsewhere in France, one of the best Australian opensides in Liam Gill has joined Toulon, while the Premiership can boast Kurtley Beale (Wasps), Matt Toomua (Leicester) and Schalk Burger (Saracens) as recently transferred superstars. 

As well as new players, a number have changed clubs and could provide even more thrills in their new surroundings. Ian Madigan has fled Ireland and will start at fly-half for Bordeaux, while offload-king Leone Nakarawa has joined up with Racing after leaving Glasgow. Louis Picamoles has started well across the channel at Northampton and Bundee Aki gets his first tilt at the Champions Cup after previously leading Connacht's charge in the Challenge Cup.

Are Saracens Europe's most dominant side?

The standout fixture on the opening weekend sees reigning champions Saracens head to the south of France to take on three-time champions, Toulon. 

The Londoners head into the match as favourites, which would have been unthinkable in recent years. If they can pull off a victory at the Stade Mayol on Saturday afternoon then they can potentially put claim to being Europe's most impressive club.

Will English clubs lead the way in the Challenge Cup?

If Thursday evening's 43-21 win for Harlequins over Stade Francais is anything to go by, English clubs will be the ones to beat in the Challenge Cup.

Quins and Bath will head into the tournament as favourites, with France's La Rochelle and the Ospreys from Wales both having had strong starts to their league campaigns. 

The competition continues to broaden it's horizons, with Einsei-STM of Russia and Romania's Timisoara Saracens both taking part in this season's group stage.