It is now five seasons since an Irish province competed in a European final as the switch from the old Heineken Cup to the Champions Cup coincided with a period of Toulon and Saracens dominance.

Defending champions Saracens are heavily fancied to follow in Toulon's footsteps and complete a three-peat, but there are other big beasts on the continent who fancy a tilt at Europe's biggest rugby prize.

Montpellier, Northampton and Exeter have all started the season well, while French Champions Clermont will once more look to break their duck.

Of the Pro14 sides, the three Irish provinces, Glasgow and Scarlets look best placed to break up the Anglo-French duopoly.

As the European season gets under way we look at the Irish teams and their Champions and Challenge Cup pool opponents. 





Ulster had a miserable Champions Cup experience last season, finishing bottom of Pool 5 with two wins from six. Although they followed up an opening-round defeat to Bordeaux with back-to-backs home wins against Exeter and Clermont, that was as good as it got. The 1999 champions’ hopes for qualification were already gone by the time Bordeaux won at Ravenhill in the last game.


Ulster sit in second place in Conference B after five wins from six games, their sole loss the shock reverse in Zebre. They beat Connacht in the first interpro of the season last Friday night.

The form of new signings John Cooney, Christian Lealiifano and the continued excellence of Charles Piutau have somewhat filled the void left by Ruan Pienaar.

Rory Best is hamstrung and won’t feature this weekend, while Jared Payne, Marcel Coetzee, Craig Gilroy and Chris Henry are among the other absentees.

Opening three games: Wasps (H), La Rochelle (A), Harlequins (A).


The Coventry-based side topped Pool 2 last season finishing above Toulouse, Connacht and Zebre but missed out on a home quarter-final with the lowest points tally of the group winners.  That meant a quarter-final against a red-hot Leinster at the Aviva. The 2004 and 2007 winners couldn’t get to grips with the hosts, losing 32-17. Willie le Roux dropping the ball over the line the lowlight of the afternoon.


Wasps are in tenth place in the table with just two wins from six. Former Leinster prop Marty Moore scored a consolation try last Sunday in their 38-19 defeat at Saracens. They are missing a hatful of players for the trip to Ulster, including England internationals Nathan Hughes and Danny Cipriani.


Harlequins missed out on Champions Cup action for the last two seasons. They failed to get out of their Challenge Cup pool in 2016/17, finishing third behind Edinburgh and Stade.

Last week’s Premiership win over Sale came after back-to-back losses and they sit in seventh with three victories from six games.

Conor O’Shea’s former charges, now led by John Kingston, must do without Lions and England prop Kyle Sinckler (above), who is serving a seven-week ban for gouging.

La Rochelle

La Rochelle were another side to participate in the secondary European competition last season and this is their first time at the elite level. They emerged from Pool 1 in second place but were good enough to beat Edinburgh away before losing at home to Gloucester in the semi-final.

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They topped the regular-season table last year and are still one of the form sides in France, with a record of five wins from seven, including two victories on the road and lie in fifth place.

They can boast France international forwards Kevin Gourdon and Uini Atonio among their number as well as former All Black Victor Vito and Brock James.  



Having failed to emerge from the pool in the 2015/16, Leinster scaled the heights last season and came within a score of making the final, losing 27-22 in Clermont. That came after they topped a pool containing Montpellier, Castres and Northampton, losing only once – away to Montpellier – and beating Wasps in the quarter-final. 


Leo Cullen’s side are third in Conference B after posting five wins from six ties. Their only defeat came in South Africa to the Cheetahs. They face Montpellier on Saturday coming off the back of a derby win over Munster.

While the three-time champions have strength in depth the absence of Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Garry Ringrose cannot be taken lightly at this level. Sean O’Brien is another big name struggling for fitness.

Opening three matches: Montpellier (H), Glasgow (A), Exeter Chiefs (A).


New money Montpellier appear to be following the likes of Toulon and Saracens in their club model, recruiting some finished products in the off-season. The French side didn’t get out of the pool last year but Leo Cullen is not expecting the same team that beat Leinster 22-16 in France or the one that went down 57-3 in the corresponding fixture last year.

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Only Lyon are higher in the standings than Vern Cotter’s team but one of their two defeats thus far came away to Stade last week.

They were the beneficiaries of scrum-half Ruan Pienaar’s exit from Ulster and he has All Black Aaron Cruden outside for company. Louis Picamoles is another star signing at the club.

Exeter Chiefs

Exeter won two from six in last season’s competition but their focus was on the Premiership, which they won for the first time in their history.


Rob Baxter’s charges  are currently in second, just one point behind Saracens.

One of their main men, England wing Jack Nowell, will miss the opening two rounds at least with a fractured cheekbone. Ulster man Gareth Steenson, who kicked the winning penalty in last year’s Premiership final against Wasps, should also feature, while Henry Slade could be their star man.


Glasgow emerged from Munster’s pool last season, finishing as sixth best for the quarter-finals. There they met eventual winners Saracens and proved no match.


Their form coming into the opening rounds, against Exeter and Leinster, could not be much better; Dave Rennie’s men have won six from six and picked up four bonus points.  Much depends on Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, who will miss out the first two rounds at least through injury.



Two-time winners Munster surpassed all expectations last season, topping a pool containing Glasgow, Racing and Leicester before meeting the unstoppable Sarries in the semi-final. All this achieved in the aftermath of the untimely death of Anthony Foley.


Currently second in Conference A, Munster suffered their second league defeat last week to Leinster and looked far from the finished product. Preparations are also far from ideal with the long-awaited announcement of Johan Erasmus’s replacement, Johann van Graan, only confirmed during the week. He won’t be in situ until November.

There are no real concerns about how Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony or CJ Stander will perform but they must drag more out of their team-mates. Jaco Taute is their main absentee.

Opening three matches: Castres (A), Racing 92 (H), Leicester (H).


Castres have only emerged from the pool stage once in 13 attempts. Last season they managed two wins and a draw at home to Leinster.

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They have lost four of their last five games in France and sit in 11th. Back row Alex Tulou is their main man.


The 2016 Top 14 champions and Champions Cup finalists never got to grips with European rugby last season, finishing bottom of the Munster, Glasgow and Leicester pool.

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It’s mid-table mediocrity for the Ronan O’Gara-coached team and they have lost their last three on the bounce.

Former Munster and Ireland lock Donnacha Ryan remains out with a neck issue; back Virimi Vakatawa is their danger man.


The Heineken Cup aristocrats finished third in their pool last season, managing home wins over Racing and Munster.


Having lost their last two league games, the Tigers are in sixth place in the table.

Former Leinster back row Dominic Ryan has been stood down for three months due to concussions. Aussie Matt Toomua could be the man to lead a charge that their fans would love.




Last season the then-Pro12 champions claimed four wins – against Toulouse, Zebre (2) and Wasps but fell short of Champions Cup pool qualification despite finishing level on points with the second-place team.


Kieran Keane’s side have managed just one win all season – over the Kings – and lie second from botton of Conference A. Although improvement is evident, they’ve lost their last four.

If Bundee Aki can find the form of two seasons ago Connacht could do something here.

Opening three matches: Oyonnax (A), Worcester (H), Brive (A).


Oyonnax have lost just one of their six previous home games in the Challenge Cup, winning four and drawing once but were not involved last year.

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They have one win from seven games in the Top 14.


Pooled with Brive, Dragons and Enisey-STM, they finished third with two wins last year.


Still without a win after six games, they are rooted to the bottom. Their second game – away to Connacht – will raise more interest than usual with Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer in their ranks.


Brive topped their pool last season and won their last five pool stage matches, their best run in the Challenge Cup since going unbeaten for 23 such matches between 2008 and 2014.

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They are bottom of the pile in France, with just one win in seven although that did come last week at home to Castres.

Live radio coverage of Ulster v Wasps and Leinster v Montpellier on RTÉ 2FM, with live blog of Castres v Munster on RTÉ.ie/sport.

Ulster v Wasps, Champions Cup live commentary, Friday, RTÉ 2fm's Game On, 7.45pm

Leinster v Montpellier, Champions Cup, live commentary, Saturday RTÉ 2fm, 1pm