And so the European Rugby Champions Cup (sponsored by Heineken, but NOT the Heineken Cup you understand) is finally with is. As of Friday the 20 top rugby teams in Europe do battle to once again be crowned the best of the best.
The ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’ of European rugby face off over the coming months, all hoping to be one of the lucky two teams at Twickenham at the beginning of May.
Expect the latter stages to once again be dominated by the ‘Haves’, those teams with the seemingly endless budgets and playing squads. Toulon, Saracens, Leinster and Northampton currently fill the first four places at the bookmakers and I don’t think you’d be too far wrong, or any poorer, if you went with one of those teams to eventually lift the shiney new trophy.
For my team, Sale Sharks, such riches seem a little far off. You have to look along way down those bookmaker’s lists to find us, a 750/1 chance to win the competition. Much as it pains me to say it, that roughly sums up our chances this year, and this is why…
When it comes to any sports tournament you will always get difficult groups,hard groups and the unenviable ‘group of of death’. Then you get Sale’s group this year.
We find ourselves up against Munster, twice winners and twice runners up. Clermont Auvergne, current Top14 league leaders. And Saracens, last year’s runners up in both this and the Premiership Final. If that wasn’t enough, all three of them made the semi finals of this competition last year.
Sale currently find themselves 10th in Premiership and lost in the quarter finals of last year’s Challenge Cup. You can see the mountain they have to climb.
Luckily though professional sport isn’t played on paper. There have been glimmers of light from performances this year that would give us hope of taking points from this group. The 19 tries scored (including 2 try bonus points) put us fourth on the league list. The 18 tries conceded ( joint 2nd worst in the league) is slightly more worrying but over the last few games signs have been better with the infamous ‘choke’ tackle becoming more evident again. The return of star players Dan Braid and Sam Tuitupou will help the defence too.
What a group like this does mean to a team like Sale is that all the pressure is off. No one will be expecting them to do much and hopefully one or two of the teams may take them too lightly as well. Strong home performances and maybe nick a few away losing bonus points and who knows.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we are going to win it either but it should be a fun ride.
And not even I am tempted by the 750/1. Those bookie chaps don’t drive around in Robin Reliants for a reason you know!