The 2023/24 Champions Cup kicks off this weekend, with England captain Owen Farrell set to return to action for Saracens for the first-time since announcing his intention to miss the 2024 Six Nations and take a break from international rugby.
The Champions Cup’s new format features four groups of six teams who play two home and two away matches against their group opponents in December and January while avoiding clashes with teams from their own country.
The top four finishers from each group will qualify for the Round of 16, with the fifth-place team securing a spot in the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup. The importance of advantageous seeding, pivotal for securing a home last 16 and quarter-final match, heightens the significance of every minute of play.
The tournament kicks off on Friday, headlined by Connacht hosting Bordeaux and Glasgow hosting Northampton under the lights at 8 pm.
Bundee Aki returns to action for Connacht against Bordeaux at 8pm in his first appearance Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final loss to New Zealand with the centre, shortlisted for World Player of the Year, has recovered from a hamstring injury. Connacht, seeking to rebound from a heart-wrenching defeat to Leinster in the final play of their United Rugby Championship (URC) clash last week, face a star-studded Bordeaux side boasting French internationals like Damian Penaud, Maxime Lucu, Matthieu Jalibert, Yoram Moefana, and Louis Bielle-Biarrey.
Glasgow are at near full-strength for their European opener against Northampton, also at 8pm, with centre Huw Jones returning from a six-week foot injury absence. Rested key players including Scottish internationals Richie Gray, Rory Darge, and Zander Fagerson are returning to strengthen the team. Glasgow are very strong at home, but should be wary of a Northampton side who upset English champions Saracens on home turf last week and are capable of scoring from anywhere on the pitch.
Saturday’s action starts at 1pm with Exeter‘s trip to face Challenge Cup reigning champions Toulon at Stade Mayol. Exeter have won just once in 13 months away from home, and face a talented Toulon side potentially featuring players like Dan Biggar, Charles Ollivon, and Melvyn Jaminet.
Bath, still riding the wave of the arrival of majestic fly-half Finn Russell, host Ulster at The Rec at 3:15pm with huge confidence. Director of Rugby Johann van Graan possesses huge Champions Cup experience at Munster and is targeting a deep run in the competition.
Ulster by contrast have lost their last two URC matches, but are boosted by the return of Irish internationals Rob Herring and Ian Henderson for the clash, whilst fly-half Jake Flannery and full-back Mike Lowry could also return.
Toulouse, the five-time Champions Cup winners, launch their campaign against Cardiff in a sold-out Stade Ernest-Wallon, also at 3:15pm, and the reigning Top 14 champions have a 100% home record this season. Cardiff, despite an inconsistent start in the URC, are embracing the challenge of playing Europe’s top sides, and head coach Matt Sherratt has told his side to play fearlessly and relish the experience.
Saracens, led by Owen Farrell on his return to action after stepping back from international rugby, confront an in-form Bulls side in Pretoria on Saturday at 5.30pm. Facing the challenges of altitude, travel, and climate, Saracens aim to mark their return to European elite competition with a statement performance at one the trickiest venues to play in World Rugby. The Bulls’ prop Khutha Mchunu says the Bulls are targeting winning ‘the best club competition in the world’ and becoming the first non-European team to lift the coveted trophy.
Munster start their campaign against Bayonne at the same time, missing World Cup winner Jean Kleyn and Patrick O’Mahoney but boast a strong home record at Thomond Park in Europe. Bayonne chose to prioritise the Top 14 over European commitments last season, but could be competitive in their home games in this campaign.
Bristol Bears, eager to make their mark after missing out on Europe’s elite competition last year, host Lyon at Ashton Gate on Saturday at 8pm. Bristol’s seven try destruction of Gloucester last week marked their return to form, whilst Lyon have also made an inconsistent start to their Top 14 season. These are two sides who like to attack and could produce a thrilling game for fans under the lights.
Written by Matthew Luddington
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