As the battle for domestic success takes a backseat, it’s that time of year where the giants of our game begin their quest to become the champions of Europe.
The usual suspects will all be intent on setting their stall early - current champions Leinster will launch a stout title defence, the Saracens ‘wolfpack’ will be eager to utilise their early season form, not to forget the French giants, Montpellier and Racing 92. Whilst the Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors and the Scarlets will be amongst the teams to look out for in the first two rounds.
Toulon vs Newcastle Falcons
It then may come as a surprise that the game that stands out most in my eyes is the visit of the Newcastle Falcons to the Stade Felix-Mayol, home of 3-time champions Toulon.
The Falcons early season woes have been much spoken about, and to a degree, last season’s upturn has already been cast as a fluke by a few.
When we look closely at their results though, in comparison to the teams they’ve played, the difference is only 5 points from last season, only a bonus point victory.
They will have been frustrated with their performances against Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks, where for long patches of the games they were unable to gain a foot hole. To face Saracens, Exeter and Wasps in the their first six games would be a tough start for any team.
As for Toulon, they look a shadow of the team that created history by retaining their title three years on the bounce.
The losses of Ma’a Nonu, Chris Ashton and Duane Vermeulen as well as Juan Fernandez Lobbe’s retirement have hit hard, and with Julian Savea not having the impact you would expect it has been a poor start to the season with only 2 wins in of their first 7 games.
It would be remiss not to note the fact that they have been hit hard by injuries to Charles Ollivon, Facundo Isa and Mamuka Gorgodze.
Although, they have not helped themselves with Mathieu Bastareaud and Liam Messam, two of the most experienced players in their team, picking up red cards in recent weeks. Guilhem Guirado will have to be at the top of his game to lead his depleted team against a determined Falcons team that will be desperate to kick start their season.
I have no doubt that Toulon will be more than capable of turning it ‘on’ this weekend, especially with dangerous runners Filipo Nakosi, Josua Tuisova and Malakai Fekitoa in their ranks, but the question is where will Patrice Collazo, or Mourad Boudjellal more specifically, see their priorities lie this year.
As for the Falcons’ head honchos of Dean Richards and Dave Walder, they will be desperate for their charges to kick start their season. And there’s no better place than the Côte d'Azur.
Exeter Chiefs vs Munster
Juggernaut; a massive inexorable force, campaign, movement, or object that crushes whatever is in its path. That is how Merriam-Webster would define the Exeter Chiefs start to their season.
After their loss to Saracens in last year’s Premiership final and another lacklustre performance in Europe, the Chiefs needed to look at how they had topped the Premiership comfortably, only to then whimper at the last hurdle.
Luckily the Chiefs have one of the very best Directors of Rugby at the helm, that understood that major changes would not be needed. Alex Cuthbert singular summer signing highlights that perfectly. They needed to add to the driving maul and the relentless red zone attack.
Intensity would be one of those needed to be added. The increased intensity at almost every phase has meant that at times the Chiefs have been unstoppable so far this year.
Matt Kvesic has been a menace in the opening rounds of the Gallagher Premiership. Dave Ewers and Luke Cowan Dickie have also been able to put the Chiefs over the gain line almost at will.
A fit Ollie Devoto will only add to the go forward capabilities, and I hope to see him start against Munster. In defence it has been the same story for opposition teams this season, with all challengers unable to gain any headway.
Santiago Cordero seems to have settled after a quiet start to his tenure at Sandy Park. His understanding of being an Exeter wing, to roam the field and be involved on second phase movements has kept opposition defences guessing with his blistering speed, allowing Simmonds/ Steenson to then pick out weak points in the defensive line with devastating effect.
On Saturday Munster will be the visitors to Sandy Park, and if there was ever a team synonymous with the Heineken Cup then Munster would be that team. The men from Thomond Park always seem to pick up their game whatever may be their domestic form, no better example would be the year they lost the great Anthony Foley, reaching the semi final in 2017.
Their form this year has been very much a mixed bag, at home they convincingly dispatched the Cheetahs, Ospreys and Ulster. The same cannot be said with poor results away at the Arms Park and Scotstoun.
Johan Van Graan will need his leading man Peter O’Mahony to be at his very best to come away with anything this weekend. It will also be interesting to see the balance of their back row with a case to be made for selecting Tommy O’Donnell and Chris Cloete to nullify the Chiefs go forward but will they be able to leave CJ Stander on the bench.
Munster will not go down without a fight, they never do, and will need O’Mahony as well as Tadgh Beirne and Niall Scannell at their best to battle the onslaught that will undoubtedly welcome them. Although I believe at the end of the night the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ will be ringing around Sandy Park.