European Rugby Champions Cup preview: Pool 1
By Rob Mulhern
Last Updated: 13/10/17 10:25am
Premiership duo Wasps and Harlequins join Irish province Ulster and Top 14 surprise package La Rochelle in a very open looking Pool 1.
Teams: Harlequins, La Rochelle, Ulster and Wasps
Quins return to Europe's top table after two seasons away, while La Rochelle will feature in the European Cup for the first time in the club's history. Last year's quarter-finalists Wasps and perennial underachievers Ulster make up a pool with little between the sides.
Champions Cup Record: P74 W32 D3 L29
Best Finish: Quarter-finalists (1996/97, 1997/98, 2008/09, 2012/13)
What's hot: Harlequins' chequered league form can be put to one side this week as they celebrate their reconnection with Europe's premier club tournament after a two-year hiatus.
What's not: Quins have struggled at times to deliver back-to-back performances of real quality in the Premiership and their recent bonus-point win over Sale was dampened by the dislocated shoulder suffered by England international No 8 Jack Clifford.
What's changed: At fly-half, 18-year-old Marcus Smith has been something of a sensation since breaking into the first team this season. Harlequins' fortunes in the competition could well depend on the teenager's ability to make the step up from domestic to European standard.
Key Player: Marcus Smith
Champions Cup Record: The French side are debuting in the competition.
Best Finish: Their European credentials are illustrated by a Challenge Cup record that reads P45 W23 D1 L21
What's hot: La Rochelle finished first in the Top 14 table in 2016/17 and have been in rampant form at home this season, putting 50 points on both Clermont Auvergne and Oyonnax. They have carved a reputation for being tough to topple and boast the services of Top 14 player of the season and former All Black Victor Vito.
What's not: Placed third in the French Top 14 (at time of writing) and boosted by some stunning victories, it's difficult to find a negative on the eve of the competition. But Europe will bring a new challenge.
Key Player: Victor Vito
Champions Cup Record: P135 W66 D3 L66
Best Finish: Champions (1998/99)
What's hot: The competition curtain lifts in Belfast on Friday night and that alone will give Ulster a boost. But there's an additional fillip in the recent performances of winger Jacob Stockdale who has been adding the try-scoring gloss to an Ulster attack heavily influenced by Christian Lealiifano and former All Black Charles Piutau.
What's not: Ulster's recent form in the competition will be of some concern to their supporters - they have failed to make it out of the group stages in their last three attempts.
What's changed: The Ulster faithful are excited by emerging talent in the form of Stockdale and whether he and his homegrown team-mates can combine to give Ulster that something extra in the competition this season. John Cooney has also arrived as Ruan Pienaar's replacement and kicked magnificently off the tee to date.
Key Player: Rory Best
Champions Cup Record: P100 W63 D3 L34
Best Finish: Winners (2003/04, 2006/07)
What's hot: There have been individual highlights in recent weeks with winger Josh Basset continuing to show promise as an attacking threat, while Thomas Young's late brace against Saracens has been framed as a positive against the backdrop of terrible form and the club's crippling injury crisis.
What's not: A horrendous injury toll and four defeats in a row feed a sinking feeling of a club taking on more water every week. Wasps are suffering their worst run of form for three-and-a-half years and currently lie 10th in the Aviva Premiership.
What's changed: Quarter-finalists last year, the burden of injury and bad luck is a heavy weight to overcome if they are to hit the same mark this season.
Key Player: Elliott Daly