Pool 6: Cardiff, Montpellier, Sale, Toulon
By Brendan Cole
This looks a carve up between the French duo, with neither Cardiff nor Sale having the resources to sustain a challenge over the six matches.
Semi-finalists last year, Cardiff were routed at that stage by Leinster and have seen their squad seriously weakened since. The excellent Sam Warburton remains at openside, but the exits of Ben Blair, Casey Laulala and Gethin Jenkins and the retirements of New Zealand imports Xavier Rush and Paul Tito seriously weakens their best XV.
Add in a terrible start to the Rabo Pro12, and it’s hard to see them doing anything this year.
After scraping in with a sixth-place domestic finish last year, Sale have also had an abject start to the season in the Premiership this time around and lie bottom of the table.
Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray are interesting recruits – though Andrew Sheridan is another prop departed for France – and on paper, they can put out a decent XV, but this competition will not be a major focus.
Montpelllier, steered by Francois Trinh-Duc, will provide the main resistance to big-spending Toulon and after significant investment in the squad and as the current fourth-placed team in the Top 14 cannot be disregarded.
But Toulon’s budget is impossible to ignore. The tight five options alone - Jenkins, Sheridan, Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha and Simon Shaw among the options – make them a serious proposition for any side.
At out-half, they can choose from Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau or Freddy Michalak.
Rugby is the ultimate team game and the suspicion remains that in high-stakes knockout rugby, Toulon could be run ragged by a younger, more motivated team.
But the trip to Montpellier aside, this is a tap over the bar for Toulon.