Yesterday is was the Champions Cup preview and today the undercard. Not that all supporters will mind not having made the top competition. For some the domestic league is paramount and Europe can be a bit of a distraction. Either way here is my overview of the changes, the pools and who I think will make the quarter finals.
So what has changed?
Basically there are more Pro12 teams involved. For Ireland it’s not much of a change with only 1 team but for the first time we see Scottish and Italian teams involved. We have two teams from outside the 6 Nations who will be on the receiving end of cricket scores. But if we want rugby to spread then they need the opportunities.
Edit: The non-Pro12 Italian teams were involved in previous years. It’s the first time that a Pro12 Italian team will have been involved. Also there can be up to 2 teams from outside the 6 Nations but there is a playoff with the second tier Italian teams. So this year there is one from outside the 6 Nations (Bucharest Wolves) and one Italian side (Femi-CZ VEA Rovigo)
The other big change is that it’s not just the pool winners who qualify for the quarter finals but also the best 3 second places. That’s because teams from the Champions Cup don’t get a second chance if they don’t qualify for the Champions QFs like they did last year.
So let’s get to the pools
A little disclaimer here, I don’t follow the Top14 or Pro12 in detail so as we start looking at some of the less famous teams there is going to be some guess work.
Femi-CZ VEA Rovigo
Rovigo who? Quick where’s Google. Apparently somewhere in Italy, so we are talking second tier Italian side who will be semi-pro at best. Good luck and enjoy the experience because it’s going to be cricket scores and second place has a good chance of making the QFs.
Of the others, Blues have had a poor start to the season and Exeter turned them over twice last year in Europe, but Cardiff did manage a win against Toulon. Even so if Grenoble choose to try in this competition it should be between them and an improved Irish side for the top two spots. I’m going for Irish purely because the English teams tend to try in this competition more than the French.
Bayonne and La Rochelle are in the bottom half to the Top14 but have had an OK start to the season. Even so I can’t see them caring about this competition as it’s all about survival in the Top14. So I think we will see weakened sides especially for away games giving this pool to either Exeter or Connacht.
Exeter and Connacht have started really well and Connacht have some prize scalps from over the seasons but I just don’t think that they have the squad depth to keep up. Exeter will use this competition for some rotation and we will see some of their academy products getting some more game time and what an academy it is. So for me Exeter will top the group.
Newport Gwent Dragons
Stade Francais Paris
This pool is there for Stade Francais taking and it’s a question of who comes second out of Falcons and Dragons. Falcons are definitely playing better attacking rugby this season. I really don’t know much about Dragons, they are the weakest of the Welsh provinces and with only 1 win so far this season I’m not expecting much.
Hopefully Bucharest will enjoy themselves but basically the two 5 point wins that they will give each team means that the second team should progress to the QFs.
Bordeaux are flying this season and if they turn up with their first choice side should take this pool. Lyon and Welsh will be concentrating on domestic matters and so Edinburgh by default should pick up the second spot. That might be enough to get into the QFs as I think the last losing qualifier will come from either this pool or pool 2. I think that Edinburgh will take the slot but more due to the other teams than them playing well.
This pool is there for Gloucester to take, the two french teams are bottom two in their league so will be firmly ignoring Europe. Zebre have only ever won a couple of games in their history. This will be the perfect environment for the Gloucester players to get some more decent level rugby together and progress their game. Zebre are improving and this could well be a good pool for them to improve more as well, but I can’t see them making the QFs.
So that means I’m predicting the following teams to make it into the QFs:
London Irish Grenoble Exeter Chiefs Stade Francais Paris Newcastle Falcons Bordeaux Begles Edinburgh Rugby Gloucester Rugby
If I have all of those right, it will be a miracle but it’s fun to have a go.