This year’s competition begins next weekend with The final at St James’ Park Newcastle next May
As ever the format sees 20 teams play in five groups with the group winners and three best runners up meet in seeded knock out stages. There is an advantage in being a top four seed, for home advantage in the Quarter finals and whilst this year’s tournament undoubtedly has a lot of depth a look at the groups to see potential paths through to a high seeding is important.
Leinster took the title in magnificent style in Bilbao in May beating Racing92 and are drawn against a trio of former champions in Wasps, Toulouse and Bath Rugby
Castres Olympique, who were crowned Top14 champions, will be in Pool 2 along with Exeter Chiefs, Munster Rugby and Gloucester Rugby. This looks a particularly tough group
The Premiership winners, Saracens, have been drawn in Pool 3 with Glasgow Warriors, Lyon and Cardiff Blues. As groups go, this should be a relatively comfortable passage for the English side.
In Pool 4 one of the stand out sides from last year’s competition the Scarlets meet Racing 92, Leicester Tigers and Ulster Rugby
In the final pool come Montpellier, Newcastle Falcons, Edinburgh Rugby and Toulon.
The development of and increased strength in the Irish provinces came to fruition with Leinster’s triumph with emerging Academy talent reaching maturity and the agreement with the national side to limit the amount of play of the international players undoubtedly being a help late in the season.
Saracens apart, English sides have struggled to make an impact in the competition in recent seasons and that is for structural reasons with English players undertaking punishing schedules and the combined effect of a hard salary cap and rising player salaries meaning a lack of depth in squads has been a factor. A lot of Southern Hemisphere talent, attracted by the riches on offer in Europe, goes to France and is one of the reasons why the majority of the Top 14 sides are competitive year in and year out
Ante Post odds for the competition at the time of writing are
My hunt is for value outside the front two, who are reasonable enough favourites but not a lot of value for a six month bet.
This is where an analysis of the groups comes in. I wanted before the draw to look to back Exeter, a really well coached side perennially challenging Saracens domestically with players that aren’t over-worked as most don’t play Internationally and who are very tough to play against. However the combination of a skinny price and their tough group (Castres and Munster have demonstrable home advantages, such that even if Exeter get through its unlikely to be with a top seed points haul) put paid to that
My next candidate was Montpellier under former Scotland coach Vern Cotter and despite middling top 14 form their Southern Hemisphere talent should have them as contenders notably Cruden and Nadolo. They also have a very winnable looking group. What put me off again was the dingle figure price, these factors are already in the price
I backed Munster last year and they made the semi-finals at a double-digit price but its that group again. Castres and Exeter: they are no certainties to get through.
Which led me to Racing 92. The Paris side are a real thrill to watch in Europe and marmalised sides on their way to the final last year and should get through a group where two of the sides, Leicester and Ulster, are not the forces they once were. Either Racing or Scarlets should top the group with the other a good shot at one of the runners up spots given lack of depth in the group. Of course the presence of Scarlets accounts for Racing being 16-1 ante post not the 8-1+ Montpellier, behind them in their domestic league, are.
This season they have supplemented their strong squad with the likes of Finn Russell and Simon Zebo and its not a team that is going to die wondering. Bonus points should be on the agenda in high scoring games, key if they are to have the fall back of that runners up spot to get through but hopefully they win the group. They are 7/4 favourites to do so ahead of Scarlets at 2/1.
Racing 92 to win the 2018-19 European Champions Cup at 16-1 each way Skybet or Ladbrokes/Coral