The Champions Cup starts this weekend and Simon Mail previews the competition picking out the likely contenders for European glory...
Saracens face challenging trophy defence
Saracens won their third Champions Cup after defeating Leinster in last season's final but the holders face an uncertain future which is likely to hinder their defence. The Premiership champions received a bombshell last week after being handed a 35-point penalty and £5.36m fine for breaching salary cap rules. Saracens have appealed the decision, which means it is currently suspended, but a huge shadow hangs over the club.
Last season's double winners have an exceptional squad full of internationals but their focus could switch to avoiding relegation if the domestic points punishment is upheld. This applies immense pressure on their shoulders and Saracens were already placed in a demanding pool. Two-times champions Munster are always a threat while Racing 92 have no shortage of talent so qualification is no certainty. With all the problems off the pitch, Saracens look one to swerve and there is no appeal in backing the 3.70 second favourites.
Leinster short enough in outright market
Leinster are the team to beat, according to the Betfair Exchange, with the Irish giants a consistent contender in the European competition. The 2018 victory was their fourth success in the tournament and Leinster remain a major threat for the Champions Cup. Their defeat last season, which was the first time they have lost in a final, will only intensify their motivation to go all the way this year.
Leo Cullen's side have been given a more favourable draw than Saracens and their route through to the knockout stages looks pretty secure. Northampton are improving but still have plenty to prove against Leinster while Benetton and Lyon should not pose a major problem to them. Leinster merit their status as favourites although odds of 3.05 look short enough to win a season-long competition.
Toulouse have the talent to contend
Toulouse are the most successful team in the competition's history and the French club have a strong chance of contending for a fifth triumph this season. Admittedly their last win came in 2010 but there have been signs Toulouse are ready to return to the summit of European rugby. A run to the semi-finals in the last campaign was encouraging and this young side can improve on that this year.
The Top 14 champions will be targeting success in Europe and have a mixture of world class players and emerging talent which could prove an unstoppable combination. World Cup winnerCheslin Kolbeprovides a potent finisher in the backline while the likes of full-back Thomas Ramos, scrum-half Antoine Dupont and fly-half Romain Ntamack hint at a bright future for both France and Toulouse.
Toulouse have every chance of topping their group and securing an advantageous home route to the final in Marseille. Gloucester are seen as the biggest threat to them but Toulouse should have the edge over the Premiership side. Montpellier will hold no fears for them either while Connacht are not expected to challenge for qualification to the knockout stages. Toulouse look the best bet at 7/1 to win the Champions Cup, with an each way bet paying a third of the odds if they reach the final.
Exeter overdue success in Europe
Exeter have failed to translate their domestic consistency into a significant challenge in Europe, with just one quarter-final place in six campaigns. It will be a source of frustration for Rob Baxter although the Chiefs should progress from their pool this year. Exeter are clear favourites to win the group with Glasgow Warriors seen as their closest challengers. Sale may struggle to qualify while La Rochelle are also outsiders to progress. However Exeter do not appeal at 10/1 with plenty still to prove in the Champions Cup.
Clermont Auvergne are widely expected to top their pool, as they return to the competition after winning the European Challenge Cup last season. Ulster could give them their toughest competition with Premiership sides Bath and Harlequins both struggling for consistency. Clermont should progress, although the three-times finalists could fall short again and rivals Toulouse rate the strongest French contender this season.