By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 11/10/18 4:40pm
Premiership champions Saracens must tackle PRO14 sides Cardiff Blues and Glasgow Warriors along with Top 14 representatives Lyon in Pool 3 of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Saracens will enter the battle as firm favourites having claimed Europe’s top prize twice in the last three years but they are unlikely to get everything their own way with Glasgow Warriors currently riding high in the PRO14.
Lyon are hot on the heels of the Top 14 leaders, while Cardiff Blues have hit form at just the right time and enter the competition on a run of three successive victories.
Best finish: Cardiff RFC reached the final of the very first European Cup back in 1996 where they were beaten 21-18 by French side Toulouse. They would later transform into the Blues with the introduction of the regional set-up in Wales. The nearest that they have come since was in 2008-09 when they were beaten in a penalty shoot-out by Leicester Tigers after their semi-final was all-square after extra time.
What’s hot: The Blues are currently third in their PRO14 conference having won three games and lost three so far this season. They sealed their place in the competition with a dramatic 31-30 victory over Gloucester in last season’s Challenge Cup final.
What’s not: USA Eagles winger Blaine Scully is currently unavailable having suffered a fractured larynx in training a couple of weeks ago and he is expected to be out for at least a month.
What’s changed: John Mulvihill took charge of the outfit this season having taken the coaching reins from Danny Wilson. The recruitment of Samu Manoa in the summer certainly also caught the eye and he looks to be set for his first taste of action in a Blues shirt in their opening clash. His arrival certainly went some way to filling the void left by the retirement of Sam Warburton and the departure of Alex Cuthbert.
Key player: Highly-rated flanker Ellis Jenkins has been handed the Blues captaincy this season. His leadership skills were also acknowledged by Wales this summer when he was co-captain for the games against South Africa and Argentina. With a World Cup looming, and European ambitions burning, expect him to be central to proceedings.
Best finish: The Warriors’ most successful season in the European competition came in 2016-17 when four pool wins propelled them into the quarter-finals for the first time but their challenge was halted by pool rivals Saracens, 38-13 at Allianz Park.
What’s hot: Dave Rennie’s side are flying in this season’s PRO14 and five wins from their opening six matches have taken them top of their conference with their most notable success an impressive home victory over Munster.
What’s not: The Warriors’ will be without the often-devastating ability of Stuart Hogg for at least their first two games as he recovers from ankle surgery. He picked up the injury last month and is expected to be out for 10-12 weeks. Scotland international prop Zander Fagerson is recovering from a lower leg fracture sustained on PRO14 duty.
What’s changed: The loss of Finn Russell will have been a blow to the Warriors’ hopes this season as will have the departure of Henry Pyrgos but there was also some notable additions including the permanent addition of Scotland hooker George Turner and the arrival of former Wallabies international Nick Frisby.
Key player: Adam Hastings has been pulling the strings this season having stepped up into the play-making role vacated by Russell. Still only 22-years-old and already a Scotland international, a string of eye-catching performances suggest that he’s ready to spearhead the Warriors’ latest European campaign.
Best finish: Saracens have been crowned ‘Kings of Europe’ twice in the last three seasons. They captured their first title in 2016 when they beat Racing 92 in Lyon and then made it back-to-back European titles with a 28-17 victory over Clermont Auvernge in Edinburgh a year later. The Premiership side were also beaten finalists by Toulon back in 2014.
What’s hot: Saracens have been in impressive form once again this term with six straight victories. Five of their wins have also included try-scoring bonus points and they boast the top points scorer in the competition from last season – Owen Farrell – in their ranks.
What’s not: There appear to be few chinks in the Saracens armour, if any, but could they be victims of their own success? The side lose many players to international rugby, and, with the back-to-backs arriving soon after the internationals any injuries could be acutely felt.
What’s changed: The side have lost the smile and energy of hooker Schalk Brits, wing Chris Wyles has also retired while rising star Nathan Earle switched to Harlequins. But, they are certainly not short of flyers with David Strettle having returned to the club and Alex Lewington joining from London Irish.
Key player: Saracens are blessed with a wealth of world-class talent with internationals at every turn but a fit-again Billy Vunipola is one of their headline acts. His outing against Harlequins last weekend showed that he means business, expect the 25-year-old to rise to the European challenge once again.
Best finish: Lyon will be making their debut in the European Cup this season. They booked their place with a 5th place finish in last season’s Top 14 having been promoted from the ProD2 in 2016.
What’s hot: Lyon enter the European fray third the Top 14 table with four wins and a draw to their name so far this season. A 55-13 mauling of expected title challengers Montpellier and a 19-13 away win at Racing 92 were two notable victories.
What’s not: Experience is so often key to success in the Champions Cup and also in balancing your resources in order to compete both on a domestic level and against Europe’s best. As debutants, Lyon are short of such experience which could impact on their progression through to the latter stages.
What’s changed: A host of familiar names have been drafted in including former Clermont wing Noa Nakaitaci. The Chiefs’ Charlie Ngatai and experienced fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski. However, they have lost the services of several players, among them former Wallabies fly-half Mike Harris, prop Stephane Clement and the now retired Frederic Michalak.
Key player: With four tries already this season, the recruitment of Ngatai appears to have been a good bit of business and in Liam Gill and Carl Fearns they have outstanding loose forwards within their ranks.