European Rugby Champions Cup pool previews 2017/18
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 14/10/17 2:01pm
The Champions Cup is back for another season this weekend as the best from Europe compete in the pinnacle tournament of club rugby.
Will anybody stop Saracens from claiming a record-equalling third European Cup in succession?
Mark McCall's men are the team to beat for sure, and though the likes of Toulon, Montpellier, Clermont and Glasgow have recruited impressively, Sarries would still appear to have the strongest squad, with stunning depth at their disposal.
Heavyweights Leinster, Munster, Leicester and Wasps will look for a return to previous glory days, while PRO12 champions Scarlets and tournament debutants La Rochelle will aim to make a splash.
Once more it is a tournament full of quality, with a whole host of sides sure to hold dreams of the final prize.
Two-time champions and last season's quarter-finalists Wasps are placed in Pool 1, alongside Champions Cup returnees Harlequins, first-timers La Rochelle and 1999 champions Ulster.
Ulster and Wasps will kick off the European season on Friday night at the Kingspan, with the northern province seeking consistency and Dai Young's Wasps in the midst of a crippling injury crisis.
La Rochelle travel to Quins on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Action, as the Stoop hosts Champions Cup rugby for the first time since 2015.
The French side host Ulster in the second round of matches, also live on Sky Sports Action, while Wasps host Quins in an all-Premiership affair. Home form will be critical in this one.
In Pool 2, we're treated to a replay of last season's superb final between Saracens and Clermont, who are drawn alongside Northampton and Ospreys, both of whom will be intent on causing a few shocks.
Sarries will start their defence with a trip to Northampton, who they put 55 points on in the opening week of the Premiership, before hosting Ospreys. The double-champions will be seeking at least a nine-point return from the October fixtures one suspects.
Clermont travel to Ospreys on Sunday, with Steve Tandy's men having lost five league matches in a row, before hosting a Saints side which has recovered somewhat since their desperate start to the Premiership.
Is this pool a two horse race or could the Ospreys or Saints pull off a surprise?
If there is one definitive group of death in this year's competition then it is Pool 3.
Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs join three-time European Cup winners and last season's semi-finalists Leinster, Vern Cotter's highly talented Montpellier and Dave Rennie's unbeaten Glasgow Warriors.
Leinster v Montpellier is a tasty start to the pool in Dublin, live on Sky Sports Action on Saturday, while Exeter host high-flying Glasgow at Sandy Park.
The Warriors are the only club in Europe yet to taste defeat. What a brutal pool this is shaping up to be! You just can't call it.
Familiar faces is the theme of Pool 4 as for the second year running Munster, Leicester and Racing 92 are in the same pool, and this time are joined by Castres.
Only Munster of those three made it out last year but both the Tigers and Racing look to have improved in their performances so far this season, while Munster have yet to quite match the heights of their marvellous campaign in 2016/17.
It is also actually the third year in succession that Munster and old European foes Leicester meet at this point, with contrasting fortunes for either side in either of the last two campaigns. Who will prevail at the third time of asking?
Racing host Leicester on Saturday to kick the pool off, before Munster travel to Castres on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Action. Consistency will be key in this group, with all sides bound to drop points at the same stage.
The final of the five Champions Cup pools for the 2017/18 season sees PRO12 champions Scarlets join three-time European champions Toulon, 1998 champions Bath and Italy's sole representative Benetton.
Despite Scarlets' magnificent achievements domestically last season, they have yet to make it out of the pools in Europe since 2007, and will be focused on creating European success to go along with their league achievements.
Toulon have endured a difficult couple of campaigns to follow on from their historic three titles in a row, but have loaded their squad with yet more stars in the close season, and look a fearsome opponent once again.
Only once since the 2005/06 campaign has there been a year in the European Cup (2012/13) where a pool containing an Italian side has not produced two quarter-finalists, but could that change this season with Benetton in their best run of form for years? Tune in to find out!