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England’s finest seek Champions Cup atonement at feet of Leinster | Paul Rees

Left to right: Tom Youngs, Willi Heinz, Olly Woodburn, Matt Garvey, Joe Launchbury, Will Welch and Juan Figallo launch the Premiership’s assault on Europe. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

The pressing question in European rugby union as the Champions Cup starts is how do you stop Leinster winning it for a record fifth time. At the launch in Newcastle, where next May’s final will be played, Bath’s director of rugby, Todd Blackadder, suggested it is a tournament where cultures collide – and that the holders have become adept at winning the collision battle.

The draw has placed the Irish provincial side in Pool 1 with three former winners of the cup, including Toulouse, whose record of four triumphs Leinster equalled last season in a tense final against Racing 92 in Bilbao. The Irish province look a class apart, all but an international team whose leading protagonists, unlike their French and English counterparts, have enjoyed a long pre-season.

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Leinster’s fly-half Jonathan Sexton turned 33 in the summer. He has spent four more seasons at Leinster than his England rival Owen Farrell has at Saracens but has played fewer matches and in the last two campaigns, 12 of his 21 starts for the province came in the Champions Cup. He played more during his two years at Racing 92 but burnout is not a factor for one of the most influential players in the game.

“I try not to think about it too much because I do not want to face reality, but I have probably got a few more years in the tank,” says Sexton. “I hope it is more than that. When you reach your 30s you never know how your body will cope, so you want to make the most of every competition you are in. A few other [Leinster] guys are in the same boat and we have a nice balance between younger players who want more success and older ones who want to make the most of their last years. Our desire is just the same.”

Quick guide

Champions Cup groups and opening fixtures

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Pool 1
Bath, Leinster, Toulouse, Wasps
Opening fixtures
Fri Leinster v Wasps 7.45pm (BST)
Sat Bath v Toulouse 1pm

Pool 2
Castres, Exeter, Gloucester, Munster
Opening fixtures
Sat Exeter v Munster 3.15pm
Sun Gloucester v Castres 1pm

Pool 3
Cardiff Blues, Glasgow Warriors, Lyon, Saracens
Opening fixtures
Sun Lyon v Blues 1pm, Glasgow v Saracens 3.15pm

Pool 4
Leicester, Racing 92, Scarlets, Ulster
Opening fixtures
Sat Scarlets v Racing 5.30pm, Ulster v Leicester 5.30pm

Pool 5
Edinburgh, Montpellier, Newcastle, Toulon
Opening fixtures
Sat Montpellier v Edinburgh 3.15pm
Sun Toulon v Newcastle 3.15pm

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Leinster begin the defence of the trophy against Wasps in Dublin on Friday night, a fixture that three years ago marked their lowest point in Europe this decade. They were routed 33-6 and conceded 51 points in the return to finish bottom of their pool, five defeats in six contrasting with nine in their previous 47 matches in Europe.

“When I first broke into the side, we were the European champions three years in four,” says Sexton. “I thought it was pretty easy but it is only when you go years without the trophy that you realise just how hard a competition it is to win. It is incredibly difficult and that’s what makes it special. There were times when I did not think we would get back to the level we had been and it was a dream to win it again.”

Leinster were favourites last season even before defeating Saracens in the quarter-final, but the English champions, who were defending the crown they had held for two years, are ready to reclaim it. They are in a group that includes the only newcomers, Lyon, whose head coach, Pierre Mignoni, won the tournament with Toulon.

“A few years ago we were in the second division playing before a few thousand spectators,” he says. “We had to rebuild the team and the mentality. If the route we have taken to get here is a bit unconventional, the change has been remarkable in a short period of time. Now we have to climb again because the Champions Cup is close to international level. I know from experience how difficult it will be but we will give it a go.”

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The leading two teams in France’s Top 14 – Clermont Auvergne and Stade Français – do not even feature and are in the Challenge Cup while Toulon went into Sunday’s league match at Montpellier, their European group rivals, in danger of dropping into the relegation zone. Ma’a Nonu has gone and their summer import from New Zealand, Julian Savea, has yet to score a try for his new club.

The only unbeaten Champions Cup teams at the end of the first month of the season were Saracens and Exeter. The Chiefs have yet to assert themselves in Europe but they look to have a more favourable group than last season, when they were drawn with Leinster. None of Castres, Gloucester or Munster has the look of potential winners, but in their eight seasons in the Premiership Exeter have yet to double Gloucester or be doubled while the French champions have in the past prioritised the Top 14 ahead of the Champions Cup because of their relatively small squad.

Since reaching the semi-finals in 2002, Castres have won away twice in 33 matches, at Treviso and Glasgow, but their director of rugby, Christophe Urios, believes this season they have the strength in depth to compete and with Munster invariably energised by Europe, Pool 2 may be the most compelling of the groups.

The Premiership clubs are seeking atonement after supplying just one quarter-finalist last season, and even then Saracens missed the back door and sneaked in through the cat flap. A prime reason why Leinster won the tournament was their ability to retain possession and minimise mistakes despite referees permitting a contest for possession at the breakdown.

That did not happen in the Premiership, prompting Eddie Jones, the England head coach, to request a rethink, but the penalty conceded by Ed Slater last week for Gloucester against Harlequins when Danny Care was holding on to the ball after a tackle showed there has been little change. English clubs remain more comfortable moving their own ball rather than attacking from turnovers. Saracens, for whom Alex Goode continues to excel, are an exception and they pose the greatest threat to Leinster.

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  • Champions Cup
  • The Observer
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  • Toulon
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