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European Champions Cup Predictions – Key Clashes of Round 1

Europe’s elite start their quest for ultimate glory when the Champions Cup gets underway this weekend writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

Europe’s elite start their quest for ultimate glory when the Champions Cup gets underway this weekend writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

The cream of the crop from England, Ireland, France, Scotland, and Wales will vie for the silverware under the same format introduced last season in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. That means the 24 teams are split into two pools of 12, with each side playing four matches, two at home and two away.

The eight highest-ranked clubs from each pool qualify for the two-legged Round of 16, followed by the quarterfinals, semi-finals, and the final, with the winners set to be crowned in Marseille on 28 May.

We pick and preview the key clashes of the opening round:

Northampton Saints v Racing 92

Friday, 10 December – 22:00

A cracker to kick-off the competition with plenty of South African intrigue! The Saints are soaring. Big back-to-back wins over the past fortnight put them third in the Gallagher Premiership with a record of 6-3. South African imports Courtnall Skosan and Juarno Augustus are in good form and both scored twice in the 40-19 win over Bath last weekend.

Northampton (14th outright at 66.00) has heavy hitters – headlined by Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar – and an astute coach in New Zealander Chris Boyd, who guided the Hurricanes to Super Rugby triumph in 2016, but will it be enough to hold the ford against the French threat?

Even though Racing 92 has blown hot and cold in the TOP 14 (eighth with a record of 6-6), the Champions Cup is a fresh start set to light the spark for the star-studded side to show what they’re truly capable of. With Camille Chat, Bernard le Roux, and new star signing Trevor Nyakane in the pack and Finn Russell and Kurtley Beale in the backline (to name a few Test stars), they have firepower and x-factor in equal measure.

That you can get them at fifth outright at 8.00 speaks of their potential to push for a semi-final spot and that should start with a narrow away win.

Prediction: Racing 92 to win by 6.

Suggested bet: Racing 92 -1.5 at 1.80.

Cardiff v Toulouse

Saturday, 11 December – 15:00

A key clash in the sense that Toulouse will be out to make a statement as they start the defence of their crown. Having seized a record fifth title last season, they are the undisputed kings of the north and are the favourites to go all the way again at 2.75 outright.

Returning to the big league for the first time since 2018-19, Cardiff is on the opposite side of the spectrum at 150.00. Whether they’ll be the whipping boys of Pool B remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, they’re in for a baptism of fire here.

With no less than 32 first team players in quarantine in South Africa and London and mentor Dai Young also unavailable, Cardiff’s caretaker coach Gruff Rees himself referred to the makeshift squad they’ve stitched together as “a slight misfit group.” That they are, as well as lambs to the slaughter.

Prediction: Toulouse by at least 26.

Bordeaux v Leicester Tigers

Saturday, 11 December – 17:15

Something has to give when the league leaders of the TOP 14 and the Premiership go toe-to-toe. Bordeaux (sixth outright at 16.00), who are looking to go one better in the Champions Cup after reaching the semi-finals last season, boasts a host of stars like Matthieu Jalibert – our World XV flyhalf – Louis Picamoles and Springbok Joseph Dweba and having home ground advantage will be huge.

They welcome a roaring Tigers team who’ve feasted on everyone they’ve come up against. Springbok duo Marco van Staden and Jasper Wiese along with other internationals like George Ford, Freddie Stewart, and Nemani Nadolo have helped power Leicester to a perfect 9-0 record in the Premiership and they’ll be confident that they’ll be able to overthrow their French foes.

Unlike Leicester (10th outright at 25.00), Bordeaux is beatable. The TOP 14 table-toppers have suffered two losses, however, they showed what a powerhouse they are in their 17-7 win over Toulouse last weekend. Based on that big win, I believe Bordeaux will be the first team to tame the Tigers…by a whisker. At 3.20 for the win, I’m expecting solid backing for the Tigers, though.

Prediction: Bordeaux by 3.

Suggested Bet: Leicester Tigers +6.5 at 1.82.

Clermont v Ulster

Saturday, 11 December – 19:15

The key focus of this fixture is one Duane Vermeulen and whether he’ll make his debut for his new Irish club on Saturday. The Springbok hard man arrived in Belfast last week but a positive Covid test prevented him from hitting the ground running.

Vermeulen has linked up with his teammates, so that’s a good sign, but at the time of writing, the Ulster camp was coy on whether they’ll be able to play their trump card. They certainly need the World Cup winner after crashing to a 19-13 loss to the Ospreys in the United Rugby Championship last weekend.

Adding injury to insult, Bradley Roberts, Marty Moore, and Tom Stewart all crocked in the upset and have been ruled out of the trip to France, joining a long list of casualties that includes captain Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy.

Clermont is in much better shape. They have a strong set-up, coach Jono Gibbes had a spell at the helm of Ulster, so he has a deep understanding of what makes them tick and the added benefit of playing at home should see them turn back the visitors.

Prediction: Clermont by 8.

Suggested bet: Clermont -6.5 at 1.84.

Exeter v Montpellier

Saturday, 11 December – 22:00

After the high of a historic double in 2019-20, Exeter has run into difficulties on the domestic front. With a record of 6-4, they find themselves in fifth place in the Premiership, yet, odds-makers are expecting them to hit their straps in Europe’s top-flight competition, having them fourth outright at 7.50.

With the likes of Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg and several England stars including back row try-scoring machine Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, and Jonny Hill, it’s understandable why the Chiefs are held in high regard. Montpellier (13th outright at 50.00) match up well with anyone when it comes to star power, with Springbok trio Cobus Reinach, Handre Pollard, and Jan Serfontein among the big names.

They qualified by edging the Tigers 18-17 in the Challenge Cup final and are enjoying a good TOP 14 campaign that sees them occupying third place with a record of 7-4-1. They’ve always been found wanting in the Champions Cup, though, and their promising domestic form isn’t enough of an improvement to suggest it’ll be any different this season. The trip to Exeter, just like their hopes of reaching the semi-finals for the first time, is a bridge too far.

Prediction: Exeter by 12

Suggested Bet: Montpellier +15.5 at 1.82.

Ospreys v Sale Sharks

Sunday, 12 December – 15:00

With a dozen South African-born stars on their books, we had to shine the spotlight on Sale (11th outright at 33.00) and their tricky opening encounter in Swansea. Faf de Klerk (injured), Lood de Jager, Coenie Oosthuizen, Akker van der Merwe, Jono Ross, the three Du Preez brothers, Rohan Janse van Rensburg…the list of Mzanzi mercenaries go on and on.

Along with their green and gold spine, they have an equally impressive England Test collective and while it’s not solely to blame for their wretched Premiership campaign, the absence of their best players during the international window played a part in them winning just three of their nine matches, which have them languishing third from bottom.

The Ospreys (last outright at 200.00), who last played Champions Cup rugby two seasons ago, will be hell-bent on making the most of a golden opportunity to reintroduce themselves with a win on home soil. Having followed up an earlier shock 18-10 win over Munster with the aforementioned upset over Ulster last weekend (both at home), I’m backing them as underdog hosts.

Prediction: Ospreys by 2.

Suggested Bet: Ospreys at 2.40.

Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at and senior staff writer at, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.

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