Champions Cup preview: Pool 4 - Munster, Ospreys, Racing 92, Saracens
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 13/11/19 5:09pm
Champions Cup Pool 4 undoubtedly earns the 'group of death' tag for 2019/20, comprising of defending champions Saracens, two-time winners Munster, French powerhouses Racing 92 and Welsh region Ospreys.
Indeed, at least two of Saracens, Munster and Racing have made up European Cup semi-finalists in six of the last seven seasons: 2018/19 (Saracens & Munster), 2017/18 (Racing 92 & Munster), 2016/17 (Munster & Saracens), 2015/16 (Saracens & Racing 92), 2014/15 (Saracens), 2013/14 (Saracens & Munster), 2012/13 (Saracens & Munster).
These are sides used to the business end of the pinnacle of club rugby, but at least one - if not two - will exit before the quarter-finals this season.
Have a read of our club-by-club previews below ahead of the return of the Champions Cup this weekend...
Best finish: Saracens have been crowned 'Kings of Europe' three times in the last four seasons. They captured their first title in 2016 when they beat Racing 92 in Lyon and then made it back-to-back European titles with a 28-17 victory over Clermont Auvernge in Edinburgh a year later. In last season's final, they beat Leinster 20-10 in Newcastle. The Premiership side were also beaten finalists by Toulon back in 2014.
What's hot: Saracens possess one of the most impressive squads in Europe from any era, resembling a collection which would severely trouble if not beat most Test nations. They have also started the campaign strongly in spite of international absentees, winning three Premiership games from four, demonstrating their power in last week's 21-12 win at Gloucester.
What's not: Where to start? Last Tuesday saw a 35-point deduction and £5.36m fine handed down by Premiership Rugby after the club were found guilty of breaching salary cap rules. The punishment comes after a nine-month investigation into arrangements between Saracens owner Nigel Wray and the club's players, including England World Cup stars Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola.
Then, last Wednesday, the club failed to turn up to the season's Champions Cup launch in Cardiff, with EPCR confirming such an act was a breach of the competition's participation agreement and a financial penalty likely.
Such a situation has also led head coach Mark McCall and wider reports to speculate that Saracens will sacrifice European competition this year in order to ensure Premiership survival.
Key player: Billy Vunipola. Provided he is picked to play in these games, Vunipola impacts Test matches to the highest degree, so when brought down into the club game, he can prove unstoppable.
Best finish: Munster have won the competition on two occasions before. They finally got over the line in 2006, having previously lost in two finals, when they beat Biarritz 23-19 on a memorable day in Cardiff. The province's second title came two years later when they beat Toulouse 16-13, again at the Principality Stadium. They have also appeared in a record 14 semi-finals - 10 in defeat.
🏆 A huge two weekends of Champions Cup action coming up!— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) November 10, 2019
We face Ospreys this Saturday before Racing 92 visit @ThomondStadium on Saturday, November 23, at 5.30pm!
This video will get you PUMPED UP for #MUNvR92!
Buy tickets here > > https://t.co/9okN15TUnS#SUAF 🔴 pic.twitter.com/ppgGjpbbLI
What's hot: European rugby runs through the veins of Munster and the desire to conquer it again drives them. Three European Cup semi-final appearances in each of the last three seasons show the side is potentially on the cusp of something special. Thomond Park continues to be an incredible fortress, with just three teams winning there in Europe in 24 years.
What's not: For whatever reason, Munster perennially seem incapable of keeping their strongest XV fit at the same time, and also unable to breach the semi-final stage in Europe. Already in 2019/20, leading out-half Joey Carbery is out injured with an ankle complaint and could miss four pool matches, while loosehead Dave Kilcoyne will also miss the first two.
Key player: Peter O'Mahony. His form may have deserted him to a certain extent in the green of Ireland in recent times, but Munster are a vastly different proposition without their talismanic leader in situ.
Best finish: Beaten finalists on two occasions, Racing 92 came agonisingly close to lifting Europe's top prize in 2018, but Leinster's nous proved too much in Bilbao. It was the Top 14 side's second taste of defeat after losing out to pool rivals Saracens in 2016 in Lyon.
What's hot: In terms of squad strength, Racing have one to match most on the continent. A back-line combining the likes of Maxime Machenaud, Finn Russell, Virimi Vakatawa, Juan Imhoff, Teddy Thomas and Simon Zebo is as star-studded as you can get.
What's not: Racing have not made a good start to their current domestic campaign, winning just three times from nine fixtures and sitting down in 10th position. The ongoing situation with star lock Leone Nakarawa, where the player is facing a possible suspension and fine for returning back late from World Cup duty with Fiji is also a negative.
Key player: Maxime Machenaud. The archetypal Petit General in French rugby, Racing's whole attacking game revolves around Machenaud. His speed of service, tactical kicking and place-kicking off the tee will be vital to any Racing success or otherwise.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (2007/08, 2008/09, 2009/10). After a season away from Europe's top table, Ospreys are back in 2019/20 but face an extremely tough pool. They've never reached a semi-final in their history and haven't played a knockout tie for a decade.
What's hot: In truth, the club are struggling in several areas at the moment but in Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones, Owen Watkin, Scott Williams and George North they maintain genuine quality within their ranks.
What's not: As Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke commented this week, the club are currently experiencing a 'dark period', and one that is unlikely to improve within this pool. The region have lost five of their six PRO14 games so far this season, including home defeats to the Southern Kings and Connacht. They will also be without their Wales players Tipuric, Jones, Bradley Davies, Adam Beard, Watkin and North.
Key player: Alun Wyn Jones. Nominated for 2019's World Player of the Year award, second row Jones continues to perform at a sensational level.