The Bookies Favourites & Dark Horses Ahead of the Champions Cup

Jason Hennessy

Jason Hennessy

Jason is the editor here at RugbyLAD and a proud Limerick man.
Jason Hennessy

Favourties.

The rugby season is now fully underway across Europe and fans across the continent are already casting their eyes towards December when the European Champions Cup begins. The 24-team format from last year remains this season, with the best of French, English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish teams battling it out in two pools of 12.

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Who are the favourites?

Toulouse will go into the tournament as the favourites to go back-to-back having won both the French league and the Champions Cup last year. Their half-back duo of scrum half of scrum-half Antoine Dupont and fly-half Romain Ntamack both start for France and have lit up European rugby in recent times. They have the ability to cause any defence trouble, and are both in the debate for the best player in the world at their respective positions. They will miss rapid winger Cheslin Kolbe, who surprisingly left Toulouse for Toulon this summer, but their start of five wins from five in the Top 14 this season will allay some of those fears. They are still filled with a star-studded squad despite Kolbe’s departure and will be the team to beat this year. Toulouse’s championship victory last year took them to five title wins, one above Leinster as the most successful team in the competition’s history. 

La Rochelle, who suffered a 22-17 defeat to Toulouse in last year’s final and in the final of the Top 14, will also go into the tournament as one of the bookie’s favourites. They will need to dispel their demons of two losses in finals to Toulouse to go one better, but the squad is still filled with superstars capable of beating anyone. However, they have got off to an abject start to their league campaign, just picking up a single victory in their opening five games. Their coach, Irish rugby legend Ronan O’ Gara is being tipped as the next big thing in coaching circles. His brilliantly well-drilled defence raised a lot of eyebrows last season and Irish rugby fans will be rooting for him to do well in the southwest of France. In the forwards, Back-rower Grégory Alldritt lit up the competition last year with a series of dominant performances, earning him a nomination for the EPCR European Player of the Year. Second Row Will Skelton will also be key to La Rochelle’s success this season, and his experience of winning the competition with Saracens may prove to be invaluable. 

Leinster are perennial contenders in Europe’s primary club competition and for good reason. Last year’s United Rugby Championship winners led by their bruising pack will be sure to cause problems for any team and their all-time leading points scorer, fly-half and captain Jonathan Sexton has the ability to turn any game on its head. Their strength in depth on the front row is astounding, boasting Lions prop Tadgh Furlong, young up-and-coming star Andrew Porter, legendary Cian Healy, and new signing Samoa international Michael Ala’a’atoa. Tight games between the best club sides in Europe can be won and lost in the scrum, and this wealth of front-row talent will put them in good stead. Leinster have started their United Rugby Championship season well, demolishing the Bulls 31-3, and squeezing past the Dragons in a hard-fought 7-6 battle.

Despite their shaky start to the Premiership season, picking up just one win from their first three, Exeter Chiefs likely represent England’s best chance at European glory for the upcoming season. With a fully fit squad, Exeter boast one of the strongest sides in the competition and have consistently been one of England’s best sides for years, having competed in every Premiership final since 2016. The winners of the 2020 edition of the Champions Cup have a core of England stars in hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, lock Jonny Hill, No.8 Sam Simmonds, centre Henry Slade and wing Jack Nowell and Scottish superstar duo full-back Stuart Hogg and lock Jonny Gray. The Chiefs were beaten comfortably 34-22 against Leinster in the quarter-finals last year and will be expecting better this time around.

Who are the potential dark horses?

Last year’s English Premiership champions Harlequins shocked the rugby world with their title victory last year. The Twickenham-based outfit play an enthralling brand of rugby with the handbrake off at all times, led by their young superstar 10 Marcus Smith. Smith seems to have finally displaced George Ford in Eddie Jones’ plans as England’s fly-half after his fantastic performances in a Quins shirt for the past two years, having been called up to England’s most recent squad. 20-year-old winger Louis Lynagh, son of Australian legend Michael, is only 13 games into his young career and still has all the makings of a star. He scored two tries in their Premiership final victory over Exeter last season, and will feature prominently in his side’s quest to continue their fairytale run towards European glory. He scored another brace in their season opener against Newcastle and is showing why he is one of the most exciting talents in world rugby at the moment.

Two-time winners Munster have often found themselves in Leinster’s shadow in recent years, and dropped out of the pool stages in last year’s tournament. However, they are undoubtedly a squad filled with talent and their dominant performances against the Sharks and the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship this season have shown just how good they are. Winger Simon Zebo’s return will boost their chances, and No.8 Gavin Coombes’ try-scoring record is exceptional, amassing 19 in 39 appearances. His performances have led to him being touted as a potential pick for Ireland in the upcoming internationals, which would hardly be a surprise given his excellent form. Keeping Joey Carbery healthy will also be vital to Munster’s chances, and if he does there is no doubt that Munster could be a serious contender to win European Silverware.

This season’s Champions Cup will surely be a hugely exciting tournament, with multiple teams in with a chance of lifting the trophy in Marseille on 28 May 2022. The best of Irish, French, English, Scottish and Welsh rugby will be on show and the start of the tournament in December can’t come soon enough.