By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 11/10/18 6:23pm
The Heineken Champions Cup is back for another season as the best in the business go in search of the ultimate prize in European club rugby.
This season, will anyone stop Leinster recording back-to-back tournament victories and gaining a record fifth European Cup title?
Looking at their starting XV and bench for their season-opener against Wasps, Leo Cullen’s men clearly mean business and have the ammunition to give every other side considerable cause for concern.
That said, heavyweights Saracens and recent runners-up Racing 92 will be two that also will have their eyes on the ultimate prize.
Munster live and breathe European Cup rugby, while Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs have already shown this season that they may prove to be a force to be reckoned with.
Once again, it’s a tournament that’s jam-packed with high-quality teams all eager to make their mark but only two can ensure that they are battling it out in the final come May next year at St James’ Park.
The stage is set for a fierce battle in Pool 1 between a group of teams – Bath, Leinster, Toulouse and Wasps – that hold 11 European Cup titles between them.
All four sides are fiercely ambitious but your eye immediately turns to the defending champions.
Last season, Leo Cullen’s men became just the second side to ever win all nine tournament matches in the same season and they have the luxury of starting at home this time out.
Elsewhere on the opening weekend, Bath and Toulouse will rekindle an old friendship at The Recreation Ground.
Premiership challengers Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester are set to tackle PRO14 powerhouse Munster and Top 14 champions Castres Olympique in Pool 2 this season.
Munster clearly have history on their side with two European Cups to their name and they have made more tournament appearances than any other team. 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 last season’s Top 14 winners while Gloucester look to be developing purposefully under Johan Ackermann.
Saracens will enter the Pool 3 battle as firm favourites having claimed Europe’s top prize twice in the last three years and it will be up to the rest to disrupt their flow and focus.
Glasgow Warriors are currently riding high in the PRO14 but didn’t find European rugby to be a happy hunting ground last season, while Lyon are tournament debutants.
Cardiff Blues tasted Challenge Cup glory in May but the top-tier competition is a whole different ball game and they’ll be looking to make the step up under John Mulvihill.
A true pan-European battle awaits in Pool 4 with English side Leicester Tigers, French giants Racing 92, Welsh region Scarlets and Irish province Ulster set to duel.
This intriguing pool features two former winners in Leicester and Ulster while Racing 92 and Scarlets are no strangers to the business end of the competition.
Pivac’s side won fans from all over Europe with their performances last season, only to be halted by the eventual winners in the last four, while Racing 92 fell to Leinster at the final hurdle.
Premiership side Newcastle are back in the tournament for the first time since the 2004/5 season and find themselves housed with Edinburgh, Toulon and Montpellier in Pool 5.
It’s been a tough start to the new term for the Falcons and injuries may have struck at preciously the wrong time. On the flip side, they say that a change can be as good as a break so perhaps a Round 1 trip to Toulon could be a positive?
For Montpellier this European campaign should be about truly putting their best foot forwards after a disappointing showing last term, while Richard Cockerill knows this competition like the back of his hand and will guide Edinburgh with gusto.