It’s the start of the new era in rugby union, as the brand spanking new (well, sort of) European Rugby Champions Cup prepares to get underway.
At first glance, it may just look like a rehash of the Heineken Cup with 18 of the 20 sides that competed in the previous premier competition lining up in the tournament.
So what can we expect from this ‘new’ tournament?
An even tougher route to the final
With the numbers being whittled down from 24 to 20, and six groups of four becoming five groups of four, there will be no place to hide in the early stages.
For example, Pool 1 features three of the four semi-finalists from last year’s Heineken Cup; Saracens (8/1), Clermont (9/1) and Munster (20/1), and with only the pool winners guaranteed a quarter finals spot, teams cannot afford to slip up.
The French and English to feature even more prominently
While four fewer teams are set to take the field in this competition, the English and French leagues will be represented no less. Instead those casualties have come from the Pro 12 and Italy, where their representatives are down from 11 to seven, possibly.
French clubs won three of the last five Heineken Cups and we expect that dominance at the top level of European rugby to continue, with a price of 10/11 that a Gallic club lifts the trophy in May, while it is 13/8 that an English club conquers the continent for the first time in eight years or 7/2 for an Irish triumph, while anything else languishes at 40/1 and bigger.
A greater challenge to Toulon
The French side have claimed European titles in both of the last two seasons and are priced up at 11/4 to complete a hat-trick, looking well fancied to do so.
However, with the new format meaning one defeat could mean elimination, and with the likes of Leicester, Ulster and Scarlets in their Pool, it won’t be a straight forward progression.
Throw in that they have already lost three Top 14 matches this season, are now Jonny Wilkinson-less, and are with influential full-back Leigh Halfpenny constantly looking a game away from another injury, they are worth opposing at a very short price.
All odds and markets correct as of the date of publishing
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