Neuchatel, a small Swiss city mainly known to Scottish sports fans as a place where Celtic once got an unsuspected doing, was host for the draw of the European Professional Club Rugby Champions and Challenge Cup group stages, which pooled Scotland’s two professional clubs up against some familiar faces but also offered an intriguing trip to the unknown for Edinburgh.
Despite making the quarter-finals for the first time this year, Glasgow, after a disappointing domestic campaign by recent high standards, were only fourth seeds in Pool C, and will square up to newly crowned English Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs, familiar Pro12 foes Leinster, and Montpellier, who will have former Scotland coach Vern Cotter at the rudder.
The Warriors have faced off against Exeter and Montpellier in the group stages of the same competition not so long ago, seasons 13/14 and 14/15 respectively, with the Warriors winning all 4 of the contests, but we should take little from those results. Exeter’s rise to domestic glory this past season draws parallels to Glasgow’s own ascent, steadily building year on year until reaching the summit just weeks ago. They scored 90 tries in the regular season in the process so expectations of high-scoring, entertaining matches would not be amiss.
Whilst the Warriors went on to win the Pro12 in 14/15, Montpellier finished a mediocre 8th in the Top 14, and were particularly disappointing in their 21-10 loss at Scotstoun, in which the legendary DTH van der Merwe scored a hat-trick of tries. This year however, they finished 3rd in the regular season, before being eliminated in the first knock-out round of the play-offs by the star-studded Racing 92. (former Fiji Weegie Leone Nakarawa scoring the first try in that match.)
The scale of change at Glasgow this season cannot be under-estimated. Gordon Reid, Josh Strauss, Mark Bennett; all gone. Fan favourite, Simone Favaro, Tongan international Sila Puafisi, club veterans Peter Murchie and Sean Lamont, they’re away too, but most of all, Gregor Townsend has left and Dave Rennie is coming in. And he’s bringing reinforcements.
Does Vern Cotter’s knowledge of the Glasgow boys give Montpellier any tactical advantage? For me, no. If any opposition don’t already know of the threat carried by Hogg, Seymour, Russell and co., then their coaching staff have been slacking off big time. Cotter facing off against his fellow assistant coaches will add a nice sidebar to the story though.
Exeter are English champions, Leinster had a very good season, following a couple of years where they’d fallen below their exceptionally high standards, and Montpellier seem to be on the up again, with a Test-level manager and top talent like Fijian power-house Nemani Nadolo to call on. This could be fun.
To the Challenge Cup, and Edinburgh, who saved their best performances of last season for the same competition where they too reached the quarter-finals.
The capital side were drawn in Pool 4 alongside reigning champions Stade Francais, London Irish – newly back in the Aviva Premiership and now with their very own informant for the Scottish Rugby Blog (I must have missed this – Ed), and finally there’s Siberian debutantes Krasny Yar, from Russian rugby heartland Krasnoyarsk, primarily made up of Russian internationalists. Regardless of this, obtaining maximum points from unfamiliar surroundings is a must for Edinburgh.
By the time the opening fixture comes around in mid-October, new manager Richard Cockerill will hope to have instilled some defensive discipline into his side, as far too often last year they gifted opponents a head start. And far too often than not, failed to catch up.
Vital to Edinburgh’s chances will be keeping their big-name players out of the treatment room and on the pitch. WP Nel, Al Dickinson and John Hardie were beset with injury woes last year, and there’s only so many times Hamish Watson can be outstanding.
Speaking of which, Watson and/or Hardie will likely come up against the man they’ve usurped for the Scotland 7 jersey, Blair Cowan, and Nel should lock heads with international front row partner Gordon Reid when Irish come calling. Gregor Townsend will be keeping a close eye on those tussles, and also potentially the form of Greig Tonks who made a surprise addition to the summer tour squad.
Stade Francais may not be the force they were, but as reigning champions, and with a squad list including the likes of Will Genia, Pascal Pape, Morne Steyn and Sergio Parisse, earning anything from these games would be a bonus.
I do fancy Edinburgh’s chances of getting through. Unfortunately I see Krasny being the group whipping boys, Stade are clear favourites, and although a long summer of recruitment is ahead, l don’t think Irish will be able to improve their squad enough to match a fully fit Edinburgh, who will also be looking to add to the capture of Robbie Freuan with another couple of signings.
Even regardless of their fourth seeding, Glasgow are going to find it much tougher. The quality of the teams in the Champions Cup throughout the draw is that high, however, that when the pot of fourth seeds was announced at the draw in Neuchatel, you imagine that a lot of head coaches and directors of rugby were thinking: “anyone but Glasgow.”
It’ll be tough, but with the squad Glasgow already have in place for next season, winning all three at Scotstoun and at least one away is well within their abilities, and that’s enough to give them a chance. Win two, as they did last time, and it’s back to back quarter finals.
With fixtures still to be arranged, the games commence on 12th October 2017, with the finals weekend beginning 11th May 2018 in the Spanish city of Bilbao.