European rugby’s premier club competition kicks off in Dublin on Friday night when reigning champions Leinster take on Wasps, and unsurprisingly four-time champions Leinster lead the outright market (3.2) followed by a resurgent Saracens (4.1). And while it’s hard to envisage a final in Newcastle without either team, this competition has thrown up its share of surprises in the past and there’s plenty of teams in the chasing pack that will challenge.
Les Ciel et Blanc are the value to win it all
One team that has piqued my interest in the outrights is Racing 92. While their recent form in the Top 14 has been patchy, this is a side that has regularly put aside any domestic woes to find their best performances in Europe. Drawn in Pool 4 alongside the Scarlets, Ulster and Leicester, Racing will very much fancy their chances of progressing to the last eight.
With a hard-nosed pack and additions such as Finn Russell and Simon Zebo in the backline, Les Ciel et Blanc can go far this year.
Last year’s final loss to Leinster was a bitter pill to swallow for the Parisians but they showed their mettle as a 12-point underdog and a Teddy Thomas brain-fart ultimately proved their downfall.
Their injury list is not favourable in the early stages as they are minus talismanic scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, South African fly-half Patrick Lambie and the aforementioned Thomas. But their strength in depth is immense and outside of Leinster they probably have the most formidable squad in the competition.
With their European pedigree, I had them as third favourites and 15.0 is a nice value play for me.
More French folly this year?
Needless to say, Week 1 of this competition should always be approached with a fair deal of caution.
Some of the middling French clubs have thrown curveballs in recent times preferring to solely focus on their domestic schedule rather than any European odyssey. Current Top 14 title holders Castres have been guilty of playing second teams in this competition before.
Teams for the Saturday and Sunday games tend to be in by lunchtime on Friday so this allows a decent amount of time to do your own homework either way, and generally sides will only resort to this if results don’t go their way early doors, which has been the case with ‘CO’ in recent times. Even so as mentioned above it’s important not to get too carried away in the first slate of games.
On Sunday I will be tuning into BT Sports 3 for Cardiff Blues trip to the south east of France to take on high flying Lyon.
With a tremendous forward pack lead by Aussie Liam Gill (*now ruled out for 4-5 weeks) and the influence of one time All Black Charlie Ngata in the backs, it’s tough to oppose this Lyon unit.
Their coach Pierre Migoni is a sharp operator who as backs’ coach with Toulon was crucial to their European treble success between 2012 and 2015.
Off the back of an impressive away win over Racing 92 ‘Les Loups’ currently lie 3rd in the race for the Brouclier de Brennus.
So I’m all over Lyon to win and cover here right? Not so fast my friends.
I think there’s more than enough firepower in this Cardiff side and plenty of defensive frailty in John Mulvihill’s side to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Following losses in their opening three games the Blues have steadied the ship of late but there’s still plenty of question marks there that they may not have the answers for on Sunday.
While there’s a possibility of showers in the Rhône region on Sunday I’d be happy to take the over up to 44.5 or 45.5. As a footnote, both sides have goal kickers of a very competitive strike rate and this is always a crucial factor to consider, and one which is possibly not given as much credence as it should do with odds compilers.
The Warriors are ready for Saracens
For my second bet, I’m looking further north where Glasgow host second-favourites Saracens, and while I’ll stop short of predicting an outright Glasgow win in this I can see the home team staying within the handicap number at Scotstoun on Sunday. Yes they’ve lost the superlative Stuart Hogg to the injury table and the mercurial Finn Russell is now in Paris but I firmly believe Dave Rennie’s side will have learned plenty of lessons from last season.
Last season they were in a pool of death with eventual champions Leinster, Exeter and Montpellier and it was a campaign of major disappointment for the Glaswegians as they finished bottom with a solitary home win over Exeter their only high point. For all the great entertainment and pace of play that Rennie has brought with him from New Zealand, the Warriors far too often were destroyed up front.
But even from the small sample size of their first six fixtures in the Pro 14 this season, I can tell that there have been vast improvements in this regards.
Adam Hastings looks an extremely exciting prospect at fly-half with a quality goal-kicking boot but it’s up front where they will have to stand up to Sarries on Sunday and I expect them to do enough to keep this one close in front of a raucous home support.
The Game within the Game
One huge factor to consider in your betting this year is bonus points.
They are a massive factor in this competition with six groups and only four home quarter-final slots.
History has shown that a home quarter-final is a crucial advantage so winning with four tries can be a major boost for any team’s chances. Keep this in mind when playing totals especially as later in the game the superior team will most likely neglect the easy 3 pointers.
Of course, it’s not just the favoured teams that you need to be mindful of in this spot. Losing bonus points can be just as crucial when the final votes are counted come January.
Take Munster’s trip to Exeter this weekend for example. Exeter have been on fire this season and for all Munster’s strong history in this competition, a losing Bonus Point here and keeping Exeter without a winning one would represent a great success for Johan Van Graan’s men.
The flip side of course is that even if Exeter are ahead by 5 or 6 points late on they will be doing their utmost to stretch that lead out past the 7 point threshold. This dynamic is the ‘game within the game’ and has been why the Heineken Cup has entertained the masses for the past 20+ years. And it’s just one of many reasons it’s so good to have it back.
Best of luck with your weekend bets folks and don’t forget to subscribe to the Matchbook Betting Podcast for your Heineken Cup needs as myself and Karl Swanton preview each weekend of the action.
- Over low 40’s in Lyon vs Cardiff (Total unavailable at the time of writing)
- Glasgow +8.5