Champions Cup Preview: Pool 4 - Leicester Tigers, Racing 92, Scarlets and Ulster
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 11/10/18 5:16pm
A true pan-European battle awaits in Pool 4 of this season's Heineken Champions Cup with English side Leicester Tigers, French giants Racing 92, Welsh region Scarlets and Irish province Ulster set to go head to head.
This intriguing pool features two former winners in Leicester and Ulster while Racing 92 and Scarlets are no strangers to the business end of the competition.
Best finish: Leicester's first European Cup came in 2001 when two tries from Leon Lloyd, another from Neil Back and the boot of Tim Stimpson steered them to glory. They then became the first side to win back-to-back titles when tries from Geordan Murphy and Austin Healey carried them to victory over Munster in the infamous 'Hand of Back' finale in Cardiff.
What's hot: Leicester enter the first European window in fifth place in the Premiership with three victories to their name. A mauling at the hands of Exeter in their opener prompted the departure of head coach Matt O'Connor and they appear to have steadied the ship in recent weeks, most recently beating rivals Northampton in an emotion-filled game played in honour of Rob Horne at Twickenham.
What's not: Defensive frailties have been a part of the Tigers' season so far, they've shipped more tries than any other Premiership side. When you look at this pool, with Scarlets and Racing 92 in particular, there are back-lines that will gladly punish mistakes.
What's changed: Murphy is now in the role as interim head coach and is overseeing a squad that was supplemented in the summer with the likes of back-row Guy Thompson, Scotland international David Denton and centre Kyle Eastmond. Among those to have left are prop Logovi'i Mulipola and lock Dominic Barrow.
Key player: With many discussing Danny Cipriani's performances so far this season, George Ford has responded by raising his own levels on the pitch. His recent outings have underlined his international quality and he looks well-poised to do the same on the European stage.
Best finish: Racing 92 came agonisingly close to lifting Europe's top prize last season, however, Leinster's nous proved to be just too much. It was the Top 14 side's second taste of the big time and their second taste of defeat after losing out to Saracens in 2016.
What's hot: The French outfit have been undulating so far this season - three defeats in their opening seven games - however, an away win at high-flying Stade Francais recently suggests there's plenty more to come from the side.
What's not: Will the pressure to perform in both competitions weigh on this side? With two recent trips to the final, they won't want to fall into the perennial bridesmaids' category, just ask Clermont about that!
What's changed: Racing strengthened their hand with the addition of fly-half Finn Russell and flyer Simon Zebo and together they will help boost their output. Remi Tales, Dan Carter, Yannick Nyanga and Marc Andreu are among those to have moved on or retired from the club.
Key player: We're going to bend the rules here and have key players! Look no further than the trio of Zebo, Donnacha Ryan and Finn Russell. From the sparks and effervescence that the two backs provide to the unrelenting work rate of Ryan, they're a group that any side in the competition would love to have in their ranks.
Best finish: Scarlets made waves last season and reached the final four in style before falling at the hands of Leinster. They suffered a similar fate in 2007 when Leicester proved too strong in the semi-finals. In their former guise as Llanelli, they also reached the semi-finals in 2000 and 2002 but were beaten on both occasions.
What's hot: Scarlets are currently hot on the heels of conference leader Leinster in the PRO14 with four victories from their opening six games - one of which came against their Irish rivals.
What's not: Wayne Pivac has admitted that they're "not travelling that well" so far this season. The side haven't won away from home and in a pool like this, that record has to change.
What's changed: Back-row forwards Tadhg Beirne and John Barclay and centre Scott Williams were among those to wave goodbye to the region in the summer with scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Hurricanes forward Blade Thomson and Cheetahs duo Uzair Cassiem and Clayton Blommetjies moving in the opposite direction.
Key player: Ken Owens. Look no further than the captain who was colossal during their run last season and knows how to steer the ship. With Pivac leaving at the end of the season there's a danger of over-egging the emotional side of their campaign and that's something Owens will need to manage from the front.
Best finish: Ulster were the first Irish winners of the European Cup with the kicking exploits of Simon Mason and David Humphreys carrying them to a 21-6 victory over Colomiers back in 1999. They returned to the final stage in the 2012 title decider but were well beaten by Irish rivals Leinster, who claimed a 42-14 victory at Twickenham.
What's hot: European nights at the Kingspan Stadium are some of the most atmospheric that you'll see in the competition. The province, like all in Ireland, hold this competition in high regard and raise their performance levels accordingly.
What's not: Ulster began the season with three straight victories and a draw but a nine-try hammering at the hands of Munster brought them crashing down to earth. They go into this first European Cup weekend off the back of a home defeat to Connacht too.
What's changed: Dan McFarland took over as Ulster head coach this season following the departure of Jono Gibbes. There was a significant injection of talent in the summer with the recruitment of the likes of Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy, Will Addison, Billy Burns and Henry Speight - but it was needed with Charles Piutau leaving for Bristol and the likes of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne retiring.
Key player: John Cooney. This man's boot has proved to be a match-winning one already this season and, on top of his goal-kicking, he provides excellent service for the back-line from scrum-half.