Pool 1: Munster, Saracens, Edinburgh, Racing Metro
By Brendan Cole
This looks like a two-horse race between Munster and Saracens with Edinburgh looking underpowered and Racing Metro likely to focus on the Top 14.
For Munster, the question is whether improved results are down a route back towards traditional values or forwards to a totally new style.
The option is captured in the choice at centre, where Rob Penney must pick either James Downey or Keith Earls in combination with Casey Laulala.
Picking Downey at 12 may represent a route back to Munster’s glory days when a dominant first centre and supremely talented back row helped them play the barnstorming, committed rugby that captivated rugby followers across Europe.
The method had suited for a whole host of reasons; not least because it tied up the middle of the pitch and opening space out wide for Ronan O’Gara to dictate terms.
Using Earls at 13 with Laulala inside will indicate that a more expansive style is Penney’s ultimate aim.
Munster face Racing in their first game this weekend and while the Paris club have superstar Juan Martin Hernandez back from an eye-catching Rugby Championship campaign, he may not even make the trip to Limerick.
Racing could call on the recently recruited Olly Barkley instead, with half an eye on the Top 14 clash with mid-table rivals Perpignan at the end of the month.
Racing also have the likes of Sireli Bobo and Jacques Cronje to pick from, along with a sprinkling of Italian internationals but aside from Hernandez neither the home-grown talent nor the imports are of the same calibre as the true powerhouses in the French game.
Edinburgh are unlikely to repeat the freakish run through the competition that saw them reach the semi-finals on the back of a shock quarter-final win over Toulouse last year.
They finished 11th in the Rabo last year, giving opponents of the current qualifying system a stick to beat the ERC with, and recent defeats to Benetton Treviso and Newport-Gwent Dragons indicate they will struggle to do much better this term.
The scrappy win against Cardiff in week two of the Rabo is their only decent result so far this year.
Clearly for Munster, Saracens represent the main danger.
The London club has big squad full of quality with a best XV is not a million miles away from Test quality – up to five of their squad could realistically expect to end up in the starting England team on a given day.
Their style – low-risk rugby with a focus on kicking and forcing errors – suits a competition in which away wins are critically important.
Aside from the England cohort, brilliant individuals like the South African Schalk Brits and Namibian hardman Jacques Burger give them the ability to topple just about anyone on their day.
Their form has been up and down this season, and the competition for game time between Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell is one of those situations that is both a headache and strength for head coach Mark McCall.
What of Munster? Strides towards a more effective gameplan have apparently been taken but the high tempo looks to be still beyond them, and the pack and setpiece are significant areas of concern.
Like Sarries, there is an unresolved out-half duel between Ronan O’Gara and Ian Keatley at 10, while the best combination at centre is also an issue with two from Casey Laulala, James Downey and Keith Earls vying for selection.
Fluency between scrum-half Conor Murray and the back-row remains an issue.
But it is the pack that the main cause for concern.
The lack of scrummaging depth in the front row and the shortage of explosive carriers in the back-row are also key concerns. The loss of David Wallace is among the most keenly felt.
For a variety of reasons, the inexorable passages that used to come so naturally are rarely seen.
Saracens have the style and edge in terms of the quality of their individuals that could make getting out of this group a very awkward proposition, though Munster may just secure one of the two best runner-up spots.
3: Racing Metro