The Champions Cup kicks off on Friday in what is always a keenly anticipated weekend in the European club rugby calendar.
Here are five players well worth keeping an eye on.
Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
Robbie Henshaw may be the influential figure in the Leinster midfield, but Ringrose is equally as effective with ball in hand and in defence. The 24-year-old tends to play first receiver to Johnny Sexton, and provides a fresh cutting edge to the Blues’ attack. His slick feet also allows him to evade would-be tacklers and gain extra yardage in a bid to unlock the speed of James Lowe and Jordan Larmour out wide. Ringrose adds serious x-factor and variety in attack and should cause Wasps plenty of problems at The RDS on Friday.
Joey Carbery (Munster)
One of the most exciting names in Johann van Graan’s squad, Carbery has been a totemic presence since making his debut for the Red Army last month. The New Zealand-born player is also an option at 15, but will most likely be playing all his rugby at 10 with one eye on the World Cup next year. And if Munster are to go on to secure success in Europe, Carbery will be at the forefront of their ambitions, with his clever kicking, razor-like passing ability and overall solid game plan all keys to unleashing a stellar Munster back-line.
Joe Cokanasiga (Bath)
At 6’3 and 114kg, the Fiji-born winger has all the physical attributes to make an impact on the continental stage. The 20-year-old has scored three tries from five appearances this season since signing from London Irish, and with Semesa Rokoduguni on the other wing, will give Toulouse’s defence plenty of problems ahead of their opener at the Rec on Saturday. If Cokanasiga can continue his strong early season form, then expect him to be called up to Eddie Jones’ England side before the end of the season.
Finn Russell (Racing 92)
With Patrick Lambie out until November following his knee injury in the Champions Cup final, Russell holds the key to the Parisian dream machine. Racing should coast through Pool 4 relatively unscathed, but this is the perfect opportunity for the Scot to prove his worth as a world-class fly-half in a team of stars. If Leone Nakarawa, Teddy Thomas and Simon Zebo can all stay fit and firing, then the 2018 finalists should be in safe hands as they bid for their first Champions Cup title.
Julian Savea (Toulon)
Perhaps the biggest name to come into European rugby over the summer. With 46 tries in 54 matches for the All Blacks, Savea was on course to becoming one of their greatest ever wingers. But the emergence of Rieko Ioane has meant no game time and he decided to call time on his tenure at the Hurricanes in June. However, his move to Toulon has yet to catch fire, with the French giants winning just twice in their first seven games of the Top14 season. And remarkably, their prized asset has yet to score in six appearances. With Newcastle at home this Sunday, the 28-year-old has the chance to showcase his talents as a real star for Mourad Boudjellal’s side.
Ruthless Leinster remain the team as the Champions Cup gets underway on Friday at The RDS in Dublin.
The Blues kick off their defence of the title with a tricky home tie against Wasps.
Here, we share our verdicts plus predicted winners for each of the five pools in this year’s competition.
One of the toughest pools, featuring four former winners, but based on recent form, it is difficult to see past Leinster topping it convincingly. In fact, not many people would predict against the Dublin side lifting a record fifth title in Newcastle next May. Back-to-back matches against Wasps and Bath will prove interesting, especially with former Leinster full-back Girvan Dempsey now spearheading Bath’s attack as backs coach. Behind Leinster, both English sides will be battling for second place, with Toulouse likely to struggle in away fixtures despite a bright opening start to their Top 14 campaign.
Predicted finish: 1. Leinster, 2. Wasps, 3. Bath, 4. Toulouse
Exeter – with six wins from six in the Premiership – have the potential to go far in this year’s competition. After suffering at the hands of Leinster last season, they look to have a more favourable group, with Castres, Gloucester and Munster in the mix. Munster may be the pick of the teams to assert some level of resistance, but reigning Top14 champions Castres have past prioritised on domestic matters ahead of the Champions Cup in recent years, winning just two out their 33 away matches since 2002.
Predicted finish: 1. Exeter, 2. Munster, 3. Castres, 4. Gloucester
Saracens, like Exeter, are the only unbeaten teams in the Champions Cup at the end of the first month of the new season. And after being knocked out in the quarter-finals last year, will be determined to get back in the hunt for a third title in four years. It is a given Saracens should top this pool and are probably best placed to challenge Leinster at the business end of the competition. Glasgow have the mettle to seal second spot, with 21-year-old Adam Hastings in fine form early in the season.
Predicted finish: 1. Saracens, 2. Glasgow, 3. Cardiff Blues, 4. Lyon
Last season’s finalists Racing are bolstered by the additions of Simon Zebo and Finn Russell – two players who could add serious firepower against Scarlets, Leicester and Ulster in the group stages and beyond. If Leone Nakarawa and Teddy Thomas can stay fit and firing, then expect the Parisians to storm into the knock-out stages again. Although Scarlets have lost star men John Barclay, James Davies and Tadhg Beirne, it is hard to see either Leicester or Ulster progressing ahead of them to the knock-out stages. Both may be former winners but under new management need to use this campaign to find their rhythm.
Predicted finish: 1. Racing 92, 2. Scarlets, 3. Ulster, 4. Leicester
Perhaps one of the toughest pools to predict, but so many factors contributing to each side’s inconsistencies. Three-time champions Toulon may look a frontrunner to top the pool despite having a poor start to their domestic season with just two wins. Montpellier too will fancy their chances of booking their place in the quarter-finals. They were pitted in a tough group with Leinster and Exeter last season, and 2018-19 may be the time they can finally flourish under Vern Cotter. Newcastle and Edinburgh should cause an upset or two on the road, but are unlikely to feature at the penultimate stages of the competition.
Predicted finish: 1. Toulon, 2. Montpellier, 3. Edinburgh, 4. Newcastle
The England international winger’s deal, described as long-term by Bath, will extend his stay at a club he first appeared for in 2012.
Rokoduguni, a serving solider in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, has scored four tries in four Tests for England, and amassed 48 touchdowns in Bath colours.
“Roko is one of the most gifted players I’ve ever worked with,” Bath Rugby director Blackadder told the club website.
“He is one of a kind – he has the ability to create something out of nothing – so we are understandably delighted that Roko has committed his future to the club.
“Our long-term plan is to develop a system around exceptional people, and Roko is one of those.”
Rokoduguni, 31, has spent his entire professional Rugby career at Bath, and won the last of his Test caps in November 2017.
“Bath is where my Rugby journey started, and I couldn’t think of playing anywhere else,” he said.
“It doesn’t seem like six years since I made my first appearance.
“We have a hugely-talented squad and coaching set-up, and I know that there are great things to come from this group.
“I am extremely grateful to the British Army for allowing me the opportunity to play for Bath Rugby and for continuing to support me.”