Champions Cup 2019/20: Pool-by-pool verdict plus predicted winner... and it's not Saracens

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The Champions Cup returns this weekend, featuring the best of the northern hemisphere.

Saracens will be bidding to retain their crown but have become embroiled in controversy that threatens to knock their season of track.

Leinster, with 13 internationals on their books, will be aiming to win a record fifth title in the competition, but could we see a French giant come back to life?

But, here, we share our verdicts plus predicted winners for each of the five pools in this year’s competition.

POOL 1

Leinster: With a strong mix of international players and rising stars coming through the ranks in Dublin, the four-time champions are sure to be contesting for silverware again come May. Keep an eye out for 21-year-old Ronan Kelleher, the future Irish hooker.

Benetton: The first Italian franchise to win a place in the Champions Cup on merit, and they earned it, finishing ahead of Scarlets and Edinburgh in Pro14. It is difficult to see them grinding out a win in the pool though.

Lyon: The leading lights of the Top 14 this season, winning eight of their nine games. With confidence high, Les Loups will be hoping to do better in Europe than last year. That won’t be hard considering they lost all six matches. Prop Demba Bamba is one to watch.

Northampton: Continue to keep improving after a dismal 2017-18 domestic season. With Courtney Lawes, Lewis Ludlam, Piers Francis, Dan Biggar and Cobus Reinach all back for selection, expect Chris Boyd’s side to reach the knockout stages.

Predicted finish: 1st Leinster, 2nd Northampton, 3rd Lyon, 4th Benetton

POOL 2

Exeter: Rob Baxter’s side need to showcase their talents on the European stage after a number of subpar campaigns. With Stuart Hogg at full-back, the Chiefs finally have the attacking threat from deep to inspire them to a first quarter-final since 2016.

Sale: The Sharks need to show more bite after a mixed start to the domestic campaign. The du Preez and Curry brothers, Mark Wilson, Chris Ashton and Faf de Klerk will provide the firepower to an exciting team.

La Rochelle: Semi-finalists in the Top14 and finalists in the Challenge Cup last season, Les Corsaires are many fans pick to book a last eight spot. With pressure to achieve results on the domestic front, they could fall short this campaign.

Glasgow: The Scotland side have enjoyed a mediocre start to the Pro14 with three wins. David Rennie has built a superb side but they could struggle in a highly competitive pool.

Predicted finish: 1st Exeter, 2nd Sale, 3rd La Rochelle, 4th Glasgow

POOL 3

Ulster: Started the Pro14 season well with four wins from six. Reached the quarter-final last season – which included a stunning win over Racing. In this edition of the tournament, it is unlikely to see them advance from the pool.

Bath: Made an average start to their Premiership season – two wins from four – but will be strengthened by the return of Sam Underhill, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph from World Cup duty. Could nick a quarter-final berth.

Clermont Auvergne: After winning the Challenge Cup last season, Les Jaunards will be expected to top the pool on their return to Europe’s biggest prize. Much reliance again will fall on the shoulders of 30-year-old half-backs Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez.

Harlequins: Narrow wins and narrow defeats have been the theme of their season to date, before losing 40-22 to Northampton last weekend. Haven’t made penultimate stages of Europe’s premier competition since 2013.

Predicted finish: 1st Clermont, 2nd Bath, 3rd Ulster, 4th Harlequins

POOL 4

Saracens: Interesting to see what sort of team Mark McCall puts out. Said he wants to prioritise with the Premiership but, as reigning champions, can you honestly see the reigning champions wanting to be second best against Europe’s elite?

Racing: Bidding for a fifth quarter-final in six years, but beyond that it is unlikely they will mount the same challenge of two seasons ago. Some class players on show but, overall, they lack the same heart as other top sides.

Munster: Looked threatening on both sides of the ball in their recent win over Ulster. With five wins from six, belief is high down in Limerick and they should sparkle if they can continue to show that accuracy in execution.

Ospreys: Struggled in the Pro14, recording just one win from six games. Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and George North are key stars but three players can do little to stem the dominance of Saracens, Racing and Munster.

Predicted finish: 1st Saracens, 2nd Munster, 3rd Racing, 4th Ospreys

POOL 5

Toulouse: Watching Le Stade, who had 10 players on World Cup duty in Japan, rediscover their old flair and win the Top 14 title was one of the joys of last season. Will be a force, especially when Springboks livewire Cheslin Kolbe returns from his customary four-week break.

Montpellier: Another French side sprinkled with class. It’s just remains to be seen, though, whether a first domestic title could hold more of their attention. A broken cheekbone sees new signing Handre Pollard sidelined until the New Year.

Gloucester: Victory over Toulouse at home on Friday would certainly set the tone for a side vying for a first quarter-final spot since 2008. Play some attractive rugby with Danny Cipriani pulling the strings from out-half.

Connacht: The Sportsground, on a cold November night, is no easy place to go for any team. May be offthe pace compared to their rivals, however Andy Friend will be targeting a home win against one of the French sides.

Predicted finish: 1st Toulouse, 2nd Gloucester, 3rd Montpellier, 4th Connacht

CHAMPIONS CUP WINNER: Leinster

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