Predicting the course of a tournament that will cross hemispheres and be played in wildly varying conditions, featuring teams from extremely tight leagues, is nigh on impossible.
The 2022-23 edition of the Heineken Champions Cup will see the introduction of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers, the three South African sides who have qualified after their introduction to the United Rugby Championship last season.
It means the old stagers from England, Ireland, France, Wales and Scotland will face long trips to the Southern Hemisphere, in very different conditions that are experienced during the European winter. But, if the many different variables are removed, who comes out on top in the Telegraph Sport power rankings?
Here is our ranking of the 24 contestants.
24. London Irish
Exciting and intrepid but inconsistent and prone to being on the wrong end of close games, the Exiles have a big chance to hit the ground running with a home game against Montpellier. It will be fascinating to see how prospective internationals such as Will Joseph and Ollie Hassell-Collins fare.
Towards the foot of the United Rugby Championship table, Toby Booth’s charges have won just one of nine league matches and now take on the Premiership and Top 14 champions on successive weekends. They were, however, encouragingly resolute on the recent South African tour and host Leicester Tigers, themselves in a tricky patch, first up.
22. Northampton Saints
A defeat at Kingsholm represented Northampton’s sixth loss of the Premiership season. They have been typically sparky on the front foot and the return of Courtney Lawes should help, but a habit of fading late on – notably against Leicester Tigers and Saracens – has hurt them.
Clear of Perpignan and Brive in the Top 14 relegation spots, Castres scraped past Pau at Stade-Pierre Fabre last Sunday. They lost all four pool matches in 2021-22 but can be intensely competitive. Rory Kockott, a prime pantomime villain, is out of retirement and has been re-registered because of injuries to Santiago Arata and Jérémy Fernandez.
20. Exeter Chiefs
Following news that Luke Cowan-Dickie is following Sam Simmonds to Montpellier this summer, it feels like an era is ending at Sandy Park. They are languishing in seventh spot on the Premiership ladder. That said, Exeter should be confident of picking up something in Castres and could catch the Bulls cold in Devon.
Smashed at home by Munster last Friday, the sole Scottish side in the tournament have also lost the wonderful Darcy Graham to a knee injury. Emiliano Boffelli, Argentina’s autumn hero at Twickenham, is a decent replacement. They upset Saracens in the Challenge Cup last season and will be aiming for a repeat.
Dumped out by Leicester Tigers in the two-legged round of 16 last season before missing the Top 14 play-offs, Clermont revamped their fly-half stable by bringing in both Anthony Belleau and Jules Plisson. Damian Penaud remains a superb finisher and, with locks like Tomás Lavanini and Sébastien Vahaamahina, Clermont are not short of heft either.
17. Union Bordeaux Bègles
Having parted company with coach Christophe Urios last month, UBB begin their European schedule by visiting the West Country. Matthieu Jalibert, itching to edge past Romain Ntamack and into France’s No 10 jersey, is their conductor. After 12 Top 14 matches, Bordeaux and Clermont have identical records. They have both won five and lost six, drawing 23-23 with each other.
Having lost some momentum in November with losses to Sale Sharks, Newcastle Falcons and Harlequins, Gloucester will have been grateful to reintegrate their internationals. Close to full-strength, and especially at Kingsholm, they can cause problems for most opponents. The trouble is that they have been drawn against Leinster.
Davit Niniashvili shone as Lyon overwhelmed Toulon to win the Challenge Cup last season, meaning they qualified for the elite tournament in spite of finishing ninth in the Top 14. In Beka Saghinadze, the relentless back-rower, they have another Georgia star to go with France internationals like Romain Taofifénua and blockbuster tackle-breakers such as Josua Tuisova.
14. Leicester Tigers
The departure of George Ford is taking some getting used to, but there were encouraging signs in the first 65 minutes of Leicester’s 26-26 draw with Bristol Bears. England regulars, plus Dan Kelly, are back, though James Cronin’s fitness could be key. Now can they stay on task amid chatter about their coaches?
Marcus Smith’s ankle issue is due to be reassessed and, in the Sharks and Racing 92, Harlequins have a beastly couple of pool-stage opponents. Their two Springboks, Wilco Louw and André Esterhuizen, need to be at their best. Tabai Matson’s men should have reached the quarter-finals last season. Escaping the group would be impressive this time.
Is something stirring at Thomond Park under the stewardship of Graham Rowntree and Mike Prendergast? After a difficult start to the season, they appear to be settling. Antoine Frisch, the former Bristol Bears centre, has been a fine signing and Gavin Coombes is developing into a totemic back-rower. And, obviously, they adore this competition.
11. Sale Sharks
Power, which Sale possess, is a valuable commodity in this tournament and Alex Sanderson has winners’ medals from previous roles. While still missing Raffi Quirke and George Ford, they have impressed in the Premiership and have made the quarter-finals in each of the last two seasons before bowing out in France.
This is a tough one to gauge, because the Sharks have stuttered somewhat in the URC. They have rolled out their big guns for the visit of Harlequins, though, with Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth among a host of Springboks starting. Those players will need to be rested at some stage, but change the complexion of any game.
The Top 14 season is becoming even more of a bun-fight than the Premiership, with second and 12th separated by 10 points. Montpellier, of course, are reigning French champions. In Europe, they thoroughly enjoyed rotating their squad and still edging past Harlequins into the Champions Cup quarter-finals last season. A 10-12 midfield axis of Louis Carbonel and Paolo Garbisi is intriguing.
When all their Springboks are available, the Stormers are a terrifying prospect and landed a URC title at their first attempt last year. Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok, two sparky and skilful playmakers, will dovetail in the backline. Even without Frans Malherbe and Evan Roos this weekend, they have fearful muscle with Steven Kitshoff spearheading the scrum.
Dan McFarland has already admitted that surrendering a 19-point lead to lose to Leinster will leave a scar on his players. Prior to that, their season had been going nicely. A trip to Sale, perhaps without both Iain Henderson and John Cooney, represents an immediate test of their mettle.
Jake White has suggested that the South Africans could be in for a reality check this weekend, which indicates that his own team will be primed and ready. They are just behind all-conquering Leinster in the URC, having appeared to acclimatise to different conditions, and have a phalanx of ferocious back-rowers including Marco van Staden, Cyle Brink and Marcell Coetzee.
There seems to be a determination about Saracens as they come back to Europe’s top table for the first time since 2020. And why not? They have won all nine Premiership fixtures, attacking fluently with Ben Earl outstanding. Surely, their England contingent will be itching to immerse themselves in club duty. Francois Hougaard is a clever signing to cover the back three.
4. Racing 92
From Finn Russell to Cameron Woki, via Trevor Nyakane and Christian Wade, Racing are inundated with excellent players. Gaël Fickou is into his second season there, too. Having lost in three top-tier finals between 2016 and 2020, they would love to send Laurent Travers to the presidency with a trophy.
3. La Rochelle
The reigning European champions were thrashed at home by Pau in October, causing Ronan O’Gara to proclaim they had hit “rock bottom”. There has been an upturn since, though their Irish coach, having recently re-signed a long-term deal, is serving a ban for questioning referees. Hosting Ulster and then travelling to Northampton gives them an opportunity to start strongly.
Leading the Top 14 and perhaps frustrated with their most recent European campaign, which ended abruptly at the semi-final stage, Toulouse are sure to be a force this year. They have added Ange Capuozzo, the supreme Italy full-back, which has only made their flowing attack even more attractive. Watch out for jackalling Jack Willis, too, a try-scorer in the recent triumph over Lyon.
We tipped Leo Cullen’s team to go all the way in 2021-22 and, despite playing some beautiful rugby, they fell just short. In what will be Stuart Lancaster’s final season – before he departs, ironically, to round-one opponents Racing 92 – they will be doubly determined. Despite an early red card for Cian Healy, which has been amazingly rescinded, Garry Ringrose inspired them to a romping, 38-29 comeback win over Ulster last time out.