Champions Cup 2019/20: Leinster primed for fifth title and other key questions

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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?

Here are the big questions…

What are we expecting of Saracens?

With heckling coming from all corners of Kingsholm on Saturday, Mark McCall’s side will be braced for more of the same on their travels this season.

A 35-point deduction and £5 million fine was handed down for failing to comply with the salary cap regulations over the last three seasons.

And, because of the staggering deficit in points, McCall insisted he would be giving the Premiership priority with the threat of relegation over Europe.

For all the talk of priorities, it is unlikely the large crop of international stars will want to come out second best against Europe’s elite, especially as reigning champions.

Most of Sarries’ England contingent will be missing for Sunday’s opener against Racing 92 but, such is their strength in depth, the north London side will still be purring with confidence without their frontline players.

McCall has built a team on solid foundations, and then made them untouched in every other area, with their defence, set-piece, workrate and fitness among the best around.

With a chip on their shoulder after the devastating punishment issued by Premiership Rugby, expect Sarries to go on to top the pool.

What kind of Leinster will we see?

Facing a weak Benetton side in Dublin, the 2018 champions will be vying to open their account with a bonus point win.

With six wins from six in the Pro14, the Blues are high on confidence and have a young crop of stars glowing on the domestic stage.

With 13 players back from World Cup duty, and in contention for selection this weekend, will Leo Cullen stick with form or will he feed the internationals straight back into the starting team?

Players like Will Connors, Ronan Kelleher, Ryan Baird and Max Deegan deserve game time and shouldn’t be axed because leading figures have returned for the first time this season.

Either way, Leinster should triumph in this fixture but Cullen needs to be accurate with his starting team for the trip to Lyon – the current leaders of the French league – on Saturday week and pick on form rather than reputation.

How will the French teams fare?

Looking across the five pools, Toulouse and Clermont are the obvious choices of French teams to top their respective groups.

Toulouse, who had 10 players on World Cup duty, will welcome back their international stars against Gloucester this weekend, and are sure to be one of the leading contenders for European glory.

It is nine years since Le Stade last lifted the title, but in players like Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Cheslin Kolbe, the defending Top 14 champions have a team brimming with belief and supreme class.

Clermont, meanwhile, are always a menace, and, depending on how the draw goes, have the capability to trouble any side on their day.

A win over Harlequins at home on Saturday will set the tone for a positive campaign.

Top 14 pacesetters Lyon are dark horses to advance from a strong group, much will depend though on their opening two fixtures against Northampton and Leinster.

Lose both and the dream is over already.

Montpellier, with a bucket of quality in their ranks, have only made the knockout stages once in the last six years, and could favour a maiden league title over European progress.

French rugby can be an enigma at the best of times, however an exciting Toulouse side should lead their title hopes this year.

Who are the key players to watch?

In Ben Earl, Saracens have unearthed another gem who is looking more confident and composed as each game passes.

The 21-year-old back-rower, who has scored four tries in four matches, is a lightning presence and bundle of energy on both sides of the ball.

England may be stocked with back-row options at present, but Earl is sure get a chance sooner rather than later.

For Toulouse, Dupont and Ntamack have the ability to steal the show on any given day, while Clermont will be relying on the supreme qualities of ageing stallions Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez.

A few hundred kilometres north in Dublin, James Ryan, Kelleher and Connors – if selected – have class in abundance to make a difference.

Of the senior crop, Stuart Hogg should light up Stade Marcel-Deflandre on his European debut with Exeter. The Scot is up there with the best players in the northern hemisphere.

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