By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 11/10/18 5:23pm
Premiership side Newcastle will be dreaming of a home final in this season’s Champions Cup but first they must tackle Pool 5 rivals Edinburgh, Montpellier and Toulon.
St James’ Park is only a short drive from the Falcons’ regular Kingston Park home but the journey to the tournament finale there on May 11 will not be so simple.
Standing in their way are French giants Montpellier and Toulon along with PRO14 rivals Edinburgh who will all be hoping to provide significant bumps in the road.
Best finish: Edinburgh’s best showing in the competition came in 2011/12 when they reached the semi-finals, coming up agonisingly short against Irish province Ulster as they lost 22-19 in Dublin.
What’s hot: With Richard Cockerill at the helm, Edinburgh have a man who knows the European competition like the back of his hand. This week he’s made it clear he wants his side to go to Montpelier, enjoy it and give it their ‘best shot’.
What’s not: Scotland centre Mark Bennett will be missing until the New Year having ruptured his hamstring during the PRO14 defeat to Ulster last month. He has since had surgery and will leave a significant void in the Edinburgh midfield.
What’s changed: Edinburgh were busy in the off-season with back-row forwards John Barclay and Luke Hamilton, fly-half Simon Hickey, centre Matt Scott and scrum-half Henry Pyrgos among the additions. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Duncan Weir and Cornell du Preez were some of the notable departures.
Key player: Full-back Blair Kinghorn continues to earn rave reviews for his PRO14 performances – something he juggles with studying for a degree. Blessed with an enviable skill-set and versatility, he looks destined to take a starring role in Edinburgh’s campaign and add to his international caps next month.
Best finish: Montpellier’s best performance in the European Cup came in 2013 when they reached the quarter-finals but suffered a heavy defeat to French rivals Clermont.
What’s hot: Montpellier appeared to struggle to find their feet earlier this season, but, three successive victories – including a bonus-point win over pool rivals Toulon – have lifted them to fourth in the Top 14 table ahead of their opening Champions Cup clash.
What’s not: Injuries in the fly-half position are far from ideal. Johan Goosen is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines having suffered a nasty ankle injury in his side’s recent clash with Toulon. Subsequent scans revealed a fracture and ligament damage that is set to keep him out of action for at least 12 weeks. Equally Frans Steyn and Aaron Cruden aren’t currently available.
What’s changed: Montpellier coach Vern Cotter bolstered his squad this summer with the controversial addition of Goosen who ‘retired’ in 2016 despite being under contract with French rivals Racing. Georgian international prop Levan Chilachava is another notable addition but they have lost the services of prop Davit Kubriashvili, back Joe Tomane and full-back Jesse Mogg.
Key player: Montpellier captain Louis Picamoles continues to tower over most in the game and thanks to an incredible four-try haul against Toulouse, he is currently his side’s leading try-scorer in the Top 14. But it is with ball in hand and a defence to break when he is at his rampaging best and if they are to seriously challenge for Europe’s top prize you can bet he will be the driving force.
Best finish: The Falcons have only graced Europe’s top table twice before with their best performance coming in 2004/05 when an impressive pool campaign set up a quarter-final clash, where they suffered a seven-try hammering at the hands of Stade Francais.
What’s hot: It’s actually been a tepid start to the new season for the Falcons and the arrival of the European competition is not superbly timed for them. However, perhaps the phrase a change is as good as a rest will ring true as they prepare to face two French sides.
What’s not: Dean Richards’ side took great strides last season and shook up the established order but with Premiership wins having deserted them and an unforgiving Champions Cup pool ahead of them, there is a danger it all becomes too much.
What’s changed: The Falcons lost a raft of players in the off-season including back Juan Pablo Socino, centre Maxime Mermoz and wing DTH van der Merwe, along with Ali Hogg, Rob Vickers and Scott Lawson who retired. Fresh impetus comes from centre Johnny Williams, prop Logovi’i Mulipola, hooker George McGuigan and wing Tom Arscott.
Key player: Newcastle are desperate in need of a lift and the feet of Sinoti Sinoti or Adam Radwan may well prove to provide that.
Best finish: Toulon captured their first European Cup crown with a 16-15 victory over Clermont Auvergne in the 2013 title decider. It would prove to be the start of an unprecedented period of dominance with their star-studded squad beating Saracens 23-6 the following season before completing a hat-trick of titles with a 24-18 success against Clermont in the 2015 showpiece.
What’s hot: For all of their lack of form, on paper Toulon’s back-line looks like it could cut any team to shreds on the day. Plus the Stade Felix Mayol still has an aura about it for teams that don’t have the opportunity to play there regularly.
What’s not: Mathieu Bastareaud will miss the start of the campaign having picked up a five-week ban for a recent incident. The fall out from his three-week ban for a homophobic slur last season and Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal’s subsequent comments are also still being felt. The club faces a five-point penalty this season should they be found guilty of a similar offence.
What’s changed: A host of big names left the club in the off-season including Ma’a Nonu, Chris Ashton, Duane Vermeulen and Semi Radradra with scrum-half Rhys Webb, backrow Liam Messam and wing Julian Savea some of the latest high-profile recruits now calling the south of France home.
Key player: Savea has struggled with the transition to the Top 14. Indeed he’s yet to score a try for his new club and has been reduced to a bit-part player. No doubt Toulon would prefer the Savea that has scored 46 tries in 54 appearances for the All Blacks as they attempt to fill the void left by the try-machine that was Chris Ashton.