Champions Cup: Loftus boost and Leinster go for three times lucky
There’s one obvious game that grabs the headlines but so much else is also on offer in a box office start to the Investec Champions Cup season that should have rugby fans riveted to their television screens from Friday night’s opening through to a blockbusting Sunday.
There are four games down for Sunday and they arguably rival what we will see in the first two days, with the obvious headline game being the rematch of last season’s epic and tight final at the AVIVA Stadium, with Leinster this time having to go to France to open against their nemesis from the last two seasons.
The two sides have met in two finals, one at a neutral venue (Marseille) and another not so neutral (Dublin), and there’s hardly been anything between the sides.
In both games, the one in 2021/22 and the 2022/23 decider, Leinster led most of the way and then lost it at the death.
But close means nothing to the beaten team, who enjoyed a 23-7 lead at one point of last year’s decider and somehow relinquished it to a tenacious LaRochelle fightback, particularly not when there is a title and a season of boasting rights on the line, and both times that was Leinster.
And if you consider that Leinster also have several Irish internationals who were close but no cigar, and still rooted in that nation’s inability to get beyond the quarterfinal stage, at the recent Rugby World Cup, then it is clear Leinster should be a team that is smarting.
📁 @LeinsterRugby Factfile— Investec Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) November 28, 2023
Biggest signing 👉 Jacques Nienaber
Co-Captains 👉 Garry Ringrose & James Ryan
Key player 👉 Ross Byrne
2022/23 result 👉 Runners-Up
Leo Cullen’s side will be hoping to go one better this season 🏆#InvestecChampionsCup
Getting such an early opportunity to avenge the defeat of a few months ago might work for Leinster, who are also hitting LaRochelle when they are struggling and listing only ninth in the French league, the Top 14.
Their coach, former Munster kingpin and Ireland international Ronan O’Gara, has also been suspended for one game, a ruling that was passed down this week, so his involvement in the final rematch will be curtailed.
After a poor start when they lost to Glasgow Warriors, last year’s beaten Challenge Cup finalists, Leinster have picked up their old momentum in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship and do look like the most likely team from that competition to challenge for the European title.
However, there should be a better fist made of it from the other URC sides this season, with Munster, who are at home to Bayonne on Saturday night, having broken their trophy drought with their URC final win in Cape Town in May and also having hit some form in their most recent game against the aforementioned Glasgow Warriors.
Aside from the two South African teams, the DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls, the other URC teams to watch out for are the Warriors, who play a sublime style of rugby that makes them worth watching win or lose, and Ulster.
📁 @THESTORMERS Factfile— Investec Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) November 29, 2023
Biggest signing 👉 Warrick Gelant
Captain 👉 Salmaan Moerat
Key player 👉 Damian Willemse
2022/23 result 👉 Quarter-Finals
Will the DHL Stormers be the first South African champions?
Take a look at some of our other choices 👇#InvestecChampionsCup
Cardiff and Connacht complete the URC representation but neither of them should challenge for a place at the sharp end of the tournament, when it is usually the French sides plus Leinster who are the main contenders.
ITOJE’S WORDS A BOOST FOR PRETORIA GAME
A few years back English clubs used to feature, and that will be one of the big questions asked heading into this year’s edition of what many regard as rugby’s most elite competition - can there be an English renaissance given the troubles, mainly financial, that have blighted the English Premiership.
Saracens are the reigning English champions so there will be many eyes on their first ever visit to South Africa to play the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday, and the good news there is that the visitors do appear to have brought their top team, with England lock Maro Itoje mentioning in UK media interviews that he’s looking forward to the new challenge for his club team.
“This is the first time that Saracens are going to play a South African side in European competition, so that’s exciting,” Itoje told The Times before his team departed England.
“We’re going to be there for a week. It adds an element of excitement and it is exciting to escape the British winter. I didn’t mind South African teams being added to the competition. The more quality in the competition, the better. It’s a great occasion and something we are looking forward to.”
It remains to be seen if Owen Farrell, the England captain who is taking a break from international rugby but still fully committed to his club, will be at Loftus, but the indications were good earlier in the week as he appeared to have recovered from the injury that kept him from playing Northampton Saints in the Premiership last weekend.
📂 @BlueBullsRugby Factfile— Investec Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) November 13, 2023
Biggest signing 👉 Willie Le Roux
Co-captains 👉 Marcell Coetzee & Ruan Nortje
Player to watch 👉 Kurt-Lee Arendse
2022/23 result 👉 Ro16
How do you rate their #InvestecChampionsCup chances this season? pic.twitter.com/1hFhN90Tvw
SIYA AND RACING 92 WILL ATTRACT SA INTEREST
One of the form English teams, Harlequins, is also overseas this week, if you can really call across the English Channel as overseas for an English club, and there are some who are tipping their game against Paris 92 to be the clash of the weekend to rival the one at LaRochelle.
Certainly it could be the most entertaining given how committed both teams are to attacking rugby and there is also plenty of South African interest, with Springbok World Cup winning skipper Siya Kolisi lining up for his new club Racing.
On an entertainment level, another plum fixture is Glasgow Warriors against Northampton Saints at the Scotstoun, one of two games - the other being in Galway where Connacht host Bordeaux - that gets the weekend fare up and running on Friday night.
While LaRochelle have won two Champions Cups in a row and Leinster have been their main and most consistent challengers, it is in fact another French club, Toulouse, who have the best record in the competition, with five titles to Leinster’s four.
They get their campaign going against Cardiff on Saturday, while England coach Steve Borthwick’s former team, with two Boks in Handre Pollard and Jasper Wiese in tow along with a smattering of England internationals, host the Stormers at Welford Road as part of what should be an entertaining and absorbing Sunday that starts with Sale Sharks hosting Stade Francais and also features the LaRochelle/Leinster game (same time as the Stormers game) in the middle before finishing off with Racing 92/Harlequins.
Some facts and figures about Champions Cup:
Toulouse 5 wins
Leinster 4 wins
Saracens 3 wins
Toulon 3 wins
LaRochelle 2 wins
Leicester Tigers 2 wins
Munster 2 wins
Wasps 2 wins
Brive 1 win
Northampton 1 win
Ulster 1 win
Bath 1 win Exeter 1 win
Nations that have provided most Champions Cup individual winners:
While South African teams have only played once in the Champions Cup and never came anywhere, the country does rank high when it comes to the nations that have provided the most title winning players.
France top the list with 112 Champions Cup winners, England are second with 110, and then comes Ireland with 99. South Africa are obviously some way behind that, but still bring up fourth, with 26 players from this country having tasted European success.
How it works:
The pool stage features four groups of six teams (two from each of the leagues represented), with the champions of last year’s leagues (Saracens England, Munster URC and Toulouse Top 14) and last year’s Champions Cup winners kept apart.
The pool stage will feature four rounds, with four matches for each team, two home and two away, against clubs in their group who do not play in their league. Hence in their group the Stormers don’t play against Leinster.
The top four teams in the six team pools will advance to the single leg round of 16, while the fifth placed teams will drop to the Challenge Cup, where the Hollywoodbets Sharks are playing this season after not qualifying for the Champions Cup.
Round 1️⃣ Schedule ✨— Investec Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) December 5, 2023
Two incredible matches to kick of the #InvestecChampionsCup on Friday night, get your timings locked in for the full weekend ⏰
This weekend’s Investec Champions Cup fixtures (home teams first, SA times)
Connacht v Bordeaux-Begles (22.00)
Glasgow Warriors v Northampton Saints (22.00)
Toulon v Exeter Chiefs (15.00)
Bath v Ulster (17.15)
Toulouse v Cardiff (17.15)
Vodacom Bulls v Saracens (19.30)
Munster v Bayonne (19.30)
Bristol Bears v Lyon (22.00)
Sale Sharks v Stade Francais (15.00)
Leicester Tigers v DHL Stormers (17.15)
LaRochelle v Leinster (17.15)
Racing 92 v Harlequins (19.30)