By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 11/10/18 4:18pm
Premiership challengers Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester are set to tackle PRO14 powerhouse Munster and Top 14 champions Castres Olympique in Pool 2 of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Munster clearly have history on their side with two European Cups to their name, and having made more tournament appearances than any other side, but they are set to face a stiff challenge from an Exeter side that has graced the last three Premiership finals.
Further quality will come from the team that claimed French rugby’s top prize last season while Gloucester look to be developing purposefully under Johan Ackermann.
Best finish: Castres’ best performance in the competition was back in 2002 when they reached the semi-finals thanks to an impressive pool campaign and a narrow victory over Montferrand in the quarter-finals. However, they came up short against pool rivals Munster when they met in the last four.
What’s hot: Castres’ Top 14 title defence began well with three wins from their first four games. A home defeat to high-flying Stade Francais in their most recent outing leaves them with an itch to scratch as they head on the road to start their European season.
What’s not: The outfit rode their luck a little last season by scraping into the Top 14 play-offs before stunning Toulouse, Racing 92 and then Montpellier. Much was made of their limited resources – they had the 10th highest budget – and there are question marks as to whether they can confidently charge to the top on two fronts.
What’s changed: Castres boss Christophe Urios has freshened up his title-winning squad with ex-Clermont full-back Scott Spedding and former Toulouse centre Yann David among the additions.
Key player: Leadership will be vital as they look to try and navigate their way out of the pool over the course of the season and captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega will be one of the men that the squad look to when emotions soar.
Best finish: The Chiefs’ best performance in the European Cup came in 2016 when they reached the quarter-finals for the first, and so far, only time. That run was ended by Premiership rivals Wasps who claimed a narrow 25-24 victory with Jimmy Gopperth’s exceptional late penalty.
What’s hot: Rob Baxter’s men have made a brilliant start to their Premiership campaign with six straight victories and five try-scoring bonus points. It’s propelled them to the top of the table and the control that they have exerted over their opponents has stamped their credentials as one to watch both domestically and in Europe.
What’s not: The Chiefs suffered a double injury blow earlier this month with the news that England international Sam Simmonds faces up to nine months out while lock Jonny Hill is also set for a lengthy lay-off with a hand ligament problem.
What’s changed: Not much really! As you’d expect from Rob Baxter’s side, they’re settled and looking to build. The messages from the director of rugby at the start of the season were to take all of the positive factors from last and make further steps forwards.
Key player: Henry Slade has been in outstanding form in the early part of the season. His line-breaking prowess, distribution, kicking game and all-round dynamism will be pivotal to the Chiefs’ hopes of making the knock-out stages and beyond.
Best finish: The Cherry and Whites are no strangers to European success having won the Challenge Cup on two occasions, but their best return in the premier event came in 2000-01. Four pool victories propelled them into the quarter-finals where they beat Cardiff. In the end, they were toppled by Premiership rivals, and eventual winners Leicester, in the final four.
What’s hot: Gloucester enter the first European window in fourth place in the Premiership with an away win at Wasps the pick of their performances. Lighting the way has been Charlie Sharples with the speedster having already notched eight tries this season.
What’s not: A few injuries remain for the Cherry and Whites including Ruan Ackermann. The loose forward will miss their opening two games and, of late, they have been a little light when it comes to their props.
What’s changed: The departures of John Afoa, Billy Burns, Richard Hibbard, Ross Moriarty and Jeremy Thrush would have been cause for concern but the arrival of players like Danny Cipriani, Matt Banahan, Gerbrandt Grobler, Jaco Kriel and Franco Mostert will have gone some way to allaying those fears.
Key player: This is a huge season for Danny Cipriani in his quest to force a full re-think from England head coach Eddie Jones ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup. Taking the European stage by storm, with all areas of his game, will be essential for the fly-half to put his best foot forwards and see where that takes him.
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 also at the Principality Stadium.
What’s hot: European rugby runs through the veins of Munster and the desire to conquer it again drives them. Two defeats in their last three outings is not perhaps ideal preparation, but, their nine-try romp against Ulster a fortnight ago suggests that there’s plenty in the tank.
What’s not: The fitness of scrum-half Conor Murray remains a concern with the Ireland international not having played since the third Test against Australia in the summer. He’s a loss and a big one at that.
What’s changed: Munster made some notable additions in the off-season headlined by the recruitment of Tadhg Beirne from Scarlets and Joey Carbery from Leinster. However, they also lost a key threat in Simon Zebo who is thriving in the Top 14 having made the switch to Racing 92.
Key player: Peter O’Mahony remains a towering presence not only within the Munster set-up but the game in general. A world-class back-row forward and leader who etched his name among the great some time ago, he shows no signs of letting up and may just inspire similar feats from those around him.