It’s the big kick-off for the best club rugby prize on Earth this weekend and history guides us towards the quantity of high-intensity sport that these athletes have undertaken when weighing up who to favour in this season’s Champions Cup.
Two seasons ago, sides from the then Guinness PRO12 suffered in Europe after the travails of the Rugby World Cup, meaning an Anglo-French domination of the semi-finals of a tournament historically steeped in diversity. Notably, backing up in Europe after Lions tours has been difficult too for the British and Irish clubs; Toulouse beat Biarritz in an all-French European Cup final in 2010 as the Lions laboured through the season following a tour and after beating Australia, the Lions saw French ribbons on the European trophy again in 2014, as Toulon beat Saracens in the final.
There is little doubting Sarries’ pedigree as the team of the era right now as they look to emulate Toulon this season and land a third European crown on the spin at the landmark Finals weekend next May, which will be held outside of the ‘six nations’ for the first time at San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao.
But the sport has changed massively over the past few seasons, which could exacerbate the issues for the British and Irish sides of backing up such an intense Lions tour to New Zealand.
The weight of injuries already sustained by Premiership clubs has picked up plenty of headlines through the season to date and many players are speaking of a more physical game with higher skill levels but greater quantity of high-impact contacts with the ball in play for longer than in days gone by. When you match that with the expenditure on high-class ball players from boardrooms in the French Top 14 and it makes for some fascinating prospects in the pool stage.
Montpellier were thrashed 57-3 on their last visit to the RDS Arena to face Leinster Rugby but can be expected to be a different proposition this time around as they open their campaign under Vern Cotter in Dublin. Racing 92 reached the final two years ago and can be fancied to make a strong start against compatriots Castres Olympique, who have lost ten Champions Cup matches straight on the road. La Rochelle are in new territory in with the big boys and make their tournament debut at Harlequins but will be undaunted by surprising teams on the road, which was their staple diet last season.
The Champions Cup is clearly “the one to win” for players, coaches and fans. Given the weight of high-calibre rugby that has been played by the British and Irish contingent over the past months, the stats tell us that it is likely to be a French club that wins it.