Champions Cup Preview: Pool 1 - Bath, Leinster, Toulouse and Wasps
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 11/10/18 4:18pm
The stage is set for a fierce battle in Pool 1 of the Heineken Champions Cup between European giants Bath, Leinster, Toulouse and Wasps.
All four teams know what it takes to win Europe's biggest prize and collectively they boast a mind-boggling 11 titles.
Add in some notable performances from all these sides so far this season, and some of the most talented players on the continent, and you have the recipe for a series of titanic contests. Sit back and enjoy.
Best finish: Bath can lay claim to one European Cup title having edged out Brive 19-18 in the 1998 season finale. Jon Callard was the hero on a memorable day in Bordeaux with the full-back providing all of his side's points, including what proved to be the match-winning penalty late on in the match.
What's hot: The prospect of Toulouse arriving in town should raise excitement (and performance) levels further, Bath haven't reach the heights yet this season. With frustration potentially lingering from their recent defeat to Exeter, Todd Blackadder's side will be eager to start their European season with a big scalp in front of their ardent fans.
What's not: Despite the excitement levels, injuries remain a key part of Bath's early season with Taulupe Faletau the latest to be out of action. The international joins Jamie Roberts, Kahn Fotuali'i and Aled Brew on the sidelines. Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson also remain out of contention. Both played every minute of the club's pool stage last season and scored six of Bath's 16 tries.
What's changed: Bath have put the speculation surrounding the future of the club and director of rugby Todd Blackadder behind them with their 'open letter' from chief executive Tarquin McDonald. It detailed a contract extension for the Kiwi and the future plans for Stuart Hooper. Time will tell if that provides a stable platform for a shot at the European knockouts and beyond.
Key player: Joe Cokanasiga has long been tipped for big things and the 20-year-old wing has underlined his power, pace and potential with some eye-catching displays so far this season. He has notched three tries in five Premiership appearances - including a stunning one-handed finish against Harlequins.
Best finish: Leinster's victory over Racing 92 in Bilbao earlier this year means they have now lifted Europe's most-coveted prize on four occasions - pool rivals Toulouse are the only other team to have reached the same heights. The Irish province's first success came in 2009 when they beat Leicester at Murrayfield. With one of Europe's most memorable comebacks, they took another Premiership scalp (Northampton Saints) in the 2011 final and then went back-to-back with victory over Ulster the following year.
What's hot: The defending champions enter this season's competition also as domestic champions having proved to be too strong for Scarlets in that title decider. They also find themselves top of their conference in this season's PRO14 having won five of their six matches so far this term, including a 30-22 victory over Munster last weekend.
What's not: It's hard to single a potential weakness in Leinster's title defence with their assured leadership team in place and a talent-heavy squad at their disposal.
What's changed: Leinster embark on this campaign without the now retired Jamie Heaslip, Isa Nacewa and Richardt Strauss. Backs coach Girvan Dempsey has also departed - to Bath - but former favourite Felipe Contepomi is now back as part of the coaching set-up.
Key player: Johnny Sexton. The international fly-half is sure to be central to their latest quest for European glory. Not only a gifted play-maker and game manager, he'll be a vocal driving force as the captain of a Leinster side that has become synonymous with consistent excellence.
Best finish: Toulouse were the very first winners of the European Cup thanks to a 21-18 victory over Cardiff back in 1996. They cemented their status as one of European rugby's powerhouses with a 22-17 victory over Perpignan in the 2003 final and beat Stade Francais 18-12 in the title decider two years later. The fourth title came in 2010 when they edged out Biarritz 21-19. They were also runners-up in both 2004 and 2008.
What's hot: Toulouse currently sit sixth in the Top 14 table with four wins from seven games this season - which leaves them six points adrift of leaders Clermont. They didn't fly in their latest outing, a 10-0 win over Agen, but perhaps they had one eye on this weekend.
What's not: Lock Piula Faasalele will miss Toulouse's first two Champions Cup outings as a result of a seven-week ban he picked up this month for a dangerous tip-tackle on Montpellier's Gabriel Ngandebe. The 6ft and 19st Samoa international is sure to leave a sizeable hole in their squad.
Ugo Mola knows he has a tough task ahead if he wants to lead @StadeToulousain out of the pool stages 👊— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) October 8, 2018
With @bathrugby up first, followed by @WaspsRugby and defending champions @leinsterrugby, how much of a challenge does the French side face? pic.twitter.com/1phciAgi2J
What's changed: Since failing to progress from the pool stages in last season's Challenge Cup, Toulouse have lost Gael Fickou, Yoann Maestri and Semi Kunatini but have bolstered their ranks with a number of additions, including the signature of double World Cup winner Jerome Kaino and the return of Maxime Mermoz.
Key player: If Toulouse are to make a significant impact on their return to the Champions Cup, following last year's absence, don't be too surprised if Kaino is at the heart of proceedings.
Best finish: Wasps' first European Cup triumph came at Twickenham in 2004 when Rob Howley famously pounced on the indecision of Toulouse's Clement Poitrenaud in the dying moments of the game to dot down and propel the Premiership side to a 27-20 victory. A second title came in 2007 when tries from Raphael Ibanez and Eoin Reddan along with the boot of Alex King carried them to a 25-9 victory over Leicester.
What's hot: Wasps have started the Premiership season purposefully and are currently third in the table - albeit 10 points adrift of leaders Saracens and Exeter. That said, they warmed up for their Champions Cup opener with a home defeat to Gloucester that followed a narrow win over Newcastle.
What's not: Influential lock Joe Launchbury and Dan Robson are out of action while Brad Shields is short of game time having himself been sidelined with a fractured cheekbone. Also, Nathan Hughes will miss their opener against Leinster due to disciplinary reasons.
Dai Young believes you can only be the best if you beat the best, and that's exactly what @WaspsRugby will have to do in the Heineken #ChampionsCup 💪— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) October 8, 2018
They face reigning champions @leinsterrugby to open the tournament on Friday night, what are your score predictions? pic.twitter.com/yp2Z60jiJi
What's changed: Wasps have seen a host of names depart such as Danny Cipriani, Kyle Eastmond and Guy Thompson but they have recruited some class in Nizaam Carr, Shields and rising star Michael Le Bourgeois.
Key player: Lima Sopoaga has already shown glimpses of his quality in the Premiership and will be expected to thrive on the pressure of Europe's grandest stage.