Champions Cup: Pool stage preview

3:30 PM GMT

Who will win each pool in the Champions Cup? Ahead of Friday’s start, we give you the essential run down ahead of round one of Europe’s premier tournament.

Pool 1

Matt Toomua is yet to make his Leicester debut following his switch from Super Rugby. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images`

Teams: Racing 92, Leicester Tigers, Glasgow Warriors, Munster

Form: Top 14 champions Racing 92 have started the season slowly and are currently in 11th in the French top flight but with players like Dan Carter, Juan Imhoff and Johan Goosen in their ranks, they know what it takes to produce the goods on the biggest stage. Glasgow and Munster are seventh and third in the PRO12 respectively but both will be hopeful of getting through the pool. And Leicester, who have won the title two times, are fourth in the Premiership but have the supremely talented Matt Toomua in their ranks as they look to assert some authority on the tournament.

Player to Watch: Wallaby inside centre Matt Toomua, who is currently injured, will set the tournament alight when he returns from his spell on the sidelines. He’s one of the most gifted playmakers in world rugby and will find himself right at home in the Champions Cup.

Pool-defining tie: The Round 3 tie between Leicester and Munster at Thomond Park should be an absolute belter.

Prediction: It is fiercely hard to call but Leicester Tigers will go through with Munster.

Pool 2

Bundee Aki was the driving force of Connacht’s PRO12 triumph last term. Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Teams: Connacht, Toulouse, Wasps, Zebre

Form: Wasps have started the Aviva Premiership season in fine form, and their new-look midfield of Danny Cipriani, Jimmy Gopperth and Elliot Daly had fired them to the top of the table before Sunday’s defeat to Saracens. PRO12 champions Connacht have found defending their crown slightly more difficult than winning it, however, and have won only two of their opening five games this season. Although, that’s still more than Zebre who remain winless. Toulouse, meanwhile, have endured a stop-start opening to the Top 14 campaign and head into the Champions Cup on the back of a narrow defeat to Clermont.

Player to Watch: Bundee Aki was arguably the star of Connacht’s PRO12 success last term — scooping the league’s players’ player award — and all eyes will be on how he acquits himself on the continental game’s biggest stage. Especially in the absence of Robbie Henshaw.

Pool-defining tie: Connacht travel to Coventry to face Wasps on Dec. 11. If the Irish province want to progress then they need a result.

Prediction: Connacht and Toulouse certainly won’t roll over, but Wasps look too strong not to qualify as pool winners.

Pool 3

Maro Itoje, left, could prove a pivotal figure as Saracens bid to retain their Champions Cup title. David Rogers/Getty Images

Teams: Sale, Saracens, Scarlets, Toulon

Form: Mark McCall’s Saracens side appears to be hitting its straps just at the right time, after a dominant defeat of Wasps last weekend took them top of the Premiership table. Sale have found wins a little harder to come by, and were unable to capitalise on a promising victory against Leicester as they lost heavily at Bath last time out. Toulon, meanwhile, head into continental competition bolstered by back-to-back wins and ominously have scored 20 or more points in all eight of their Top 14 matches thus far. Scarlets opened the season with three defeats, but have bounced back to record as many consecutive PRO12 wins.

Player to Watch: England’s injury woes have put even more focus on Maro Itoje, and the supremely talented 21-year-old can help drive Saracens towards the knockout stage.

Pool-defining tie: Toulon host Saracens in the pool’s first game of the competition, and it looks as though it could be the most important too. Victory would put Saracens in total control of the group.

Prediction: Saracens are defending champions and should emerge. If Toulon play to their capabilities then they might just join them in the knockout phase too.

Pool 4

Garry Ringrose continues to impress for Leinster. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Teams: Castres, Leinster, Montpellier, Northampton

Form: Montpellier’s win over Pool 4 rivals Castres last weekend has given them momentum heading into their Champions Cup campaign. Jake White’s Montpellier head to Northampton second in the Top 14, having won five of their last six games. Castres on the other hand go into continental competition following back-to-back defeats and in the lower reaches despite a promising start. Northampton will also be looking to kickstart their season having won just two of six Premiership games, while Leinster have made an impressive start to the PRO12 season, and beat Munster last time out.

Player to Watch: Garry Ringrose has continued his development, starting five of Leinster’s six matches this season. His midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw could prove pivotal to the Irish province’s hopes this season.

Pool-defining tie: Montpellier could arrive in Dublin in Round 5 needing a win to progress. Not traditionally great travellers, they’ve only twice on their previous nine away trips in Europe, bucking that trend at Leinster would be some achievement.

Prediction: This could be an extremely close pool, but Leinster should have enough to win it. How many points the other sides take off each other will decide if anyone goes through with them.

Pool 5

Charles Piutau will miss the opening weekend but should have a big role to play for Ulster. Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Teams: Bordeaux-Begles, Clermont, Exeter, Ulster

Form: Clermont begin the Champions Cup season in flying form, having tasted just one defeat — against Toulon — and currently lead the Top 14. Their five victories included a 40-16 defeat of Pool 5 rivals Bordeaux-Begles, who remain just five points adrift of Franck Azéma’s side domestically. Exeter have begun the season sluggishly, falling to opening defeats to Wasps and Saracens, and picking up just two wins in four since. Ulster have had no such problems in the PRO12, although defeat to Connacht last weekend has robbed them of their perfect start.

Player to Watch: Charles Piutau has not recovered from a concussion in time to face Bordeaux this weekend, but he could be Ulster’s key man as they bid to make the knockout stages.

Pool-defining tie: Clermont visit the Kingspan Stadium on Dec. 10 and if Ulster want to progress then it is a match they must win. Especially as they head to the south of France eight days later.

Prediction: It is hard to look past Clermont as group winners, but all four teams will believe they can progress.

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