The Heineken Champions Cup returns for back-to-back bonanza… former

The Heineken Champions Cup returns for back-to-back bonanza… former Leicester lads Richard Cockerill and Dean Richards take centre stage

  • By mid-December the picture will be clearer over progression to knockouts 
  • Rory Best will play in his record 71st European Cup match for Ulster on Friday 
  • Joe Marler and Ellis Genge provided some laughs on Twitter this week 
  • There is plenty of intrigue around Edinburgh’s clash with Newcastle 

And so to the continent!

The UK may be entangled in red-tape over Brexit but there’s no escaping the European rugby dignitaries this week as the Heineken Champions Cup returns for a two-week back-to-back bonanza.

By mid-December we will have a clearer idea of how we all stack up, who’s out and who’s in – so time to make a few power plays for the sport’s top brass and strike a deal to remain among the Euro elite.

Follow every spit and splutter with Scrum’s the Word!

SIMPLY THE BEST

Rory Best breaks a record for Ulster on Friday night. He plays in his 71st European Cup match, passing another home-town hero Andrew Trimble with the most appearances in the top competition for that province – another fine achievement for the 36-year-old Ireland captain.

He won’t have time to oust the top man, though. Ronan O’Gara played in a staggering 110 Heineken Cup matches over his career, and sits atop the tree as one of only four players who played over 100 games in the tournament – all of them Irish.

When you put together a team based on the guys with the most appearances*, Best does not quite make the cut, but it is a quite a formidable side… and tinged with green.

Rory Best will break the European Cup appearance record for Ulster on Friday night 

Rory Best will break the European Cup appearance record for Ulster on Friday night 

EUROPEAN CUP TEAM WITH MOST APPEARANCES: 

Starting XV: 

15 Clement Poitrenaud (Toulouse; 96) 14 Shane Horgan (Leinster; 87) 13 Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster; 87), 12 Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster; 104), 11 Vincent Clerc (Toulouse, Toulon; 83) 10 Ronan O’Gara (Munster; 110), 9 Peter Stringer (Munster, Saracens, Bath, Sale; 101)

1 Marcus Horan (Munster; 84) 2 Benjamin Kayser (Stade Francais, Leicester, Castres, Clermont; 90) 3 John Hayes (Munster; 101), 4 Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster 97) 5 Leo Cullen (Leinster, Leicester; 92) 6 Jean Bouilhou (Toulouse; 84) 7 David Wallace (Munster; 86) 8 Anthony Foley (Munster; 85)

Subs: 

William Servat (Toulouse; 74) 17 Jean Baptiste Poux (Toulouse, Bordeaux; 81) 18 Martin Castrogiovanni (Calvisano, Leicester, Toulon, Racing; 76) 19 Nathan Hines (Edinburgh, Perpignan, Leicester, Castres, Clermont; 90), 20 Jamie Heaslip (Leinster; 85) 21 Richard Wigglesworth (Sale, Saracens; 81) 22 Stephen Jones (Scarlets, Clermont; 84) 23 Florian Fritz (Bourgoin, Toulouse; 81) 

*Team picked by most appearances by position. Of the 50 players with 70 or more Heineken Champions Cup appearances 23 are Irish, 18 French, 4 Welsh, 2 Scottish, 2 English and 1 Italian. Only Simon Shaw and Richard Wigglesworth make it from England. 

Trust a couple of front-rowers to provide some social media entertainment this week.

When a Twitter rugby transfer rumour account said they had spotted Ellis Genge in Worcester the mill when a whirling.

The man himself then cheekily spun it a couple of times by tweeting a pair of crossed swords – then a pen and paper to make it seem he was indeed signing for the Warriors.

Then to rub it in, next came a bath, wasp, and an eagle… after he had had his laughs Genge tweeted his explanation: ‘Anyway now the fun and games are over, the M5 was shut Monday morning northbound so I stopped at David Lloyd Worcester for a chicken flat bread… and cheese.’

Joe Marler also provided us with a laugh this week – when someone suggested current RFU head of international player development Dean Ryan would be the next England coach after Eddie Jones the Harlequins prop simply replied ‘**** that’.

Joe Marler would evidently not be pleased if Dean Ryan was appointed the next England boss

Joe Marler would evidently not be pleased if Dean Ryan was appointed the next England boss

Good news for Wales – their mad dog is back.

James ‘Cubby Boi’ Davies has made a quick return from a knee injury which ruled him out of the autumn, so the openside flanker is ready to put his tattooed hand up for selection come the Six Nations.

We understand he was set for a run in the Welsh side before his injury, so if the pilfering breakdown specialist can find form again he will provide Warren Gatland with an almighty back-row headache.

And with Ellis Jenkins cruelly now out for the long term, there might just be an opening for this Scarlet.

James ‘Cubby Boi’ Davies has made a quick return from a knee injury for Scarlets

James ‘Cubby Boi’ Davies has made a quick return from a knee injury for Scarlets

So much intrigue lies within Edinburgh v Newcastle this Friday.

England v Scotland, One v Two in Pool 5 and, of course, it’s Cockers v Deano.

The pair of Leicester lads go way back. First they played in the same side in the early 1990s at Welford Road, and then when Richards became the coach so began the Tigers’ dominant era.

Cockerill was at the heart of it at hooker as Leicester won the Premiership in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 and added two European Cups in 2001 and 2002.

Richards moved on two years after Cockerill, in 2004, but then the latter returned for a quick second stint as a player before taking up the coaching job for 12 years.

More titles followed – Premierships were lifted in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013 as well as three Anglo Welsh Cups in 2007, 2012 and 2017 – so adding Richards’ playing honours between them Deano and Cockers have won 17 major trophies for Leicester.

Dean Richards (left) and Richard Cockerill (right) go way back to the Leicester Tigers days

Dean Richards (left) and Richard Cockerill (right) go way back to the Leicester Tigers days

Now neither are there. Cockerill was sacked in 2017 by the Tigers, and still thinks he should be in charge, but that has not seen their slide stop.

Both care deeply about their old club, but all that will be put to one side at Murrayfield. At Edinburgh Cockerill has tried to build a side in an old Leicester image, with tough men, hard to beat – and Richards has done the same in Newcastle.

The Geordies are two from two in Europe so far, but have a hellish injury crisis that sees them with only one and a half fit props. They better hope Davie Wilson does not pull up with an injury, as bench man Trevor Davison is carrying a knock. Jon Welsh, Craig Mitchell and Paul Mullen all suffered injuries this week – leaving the Falcons floundering.

So you would expect Edinburgh to win, and Cockerill to take the bragging rights from his old boss – but be sure that the wily old Tiger has some bite left in his Newcastle side.

There was a bit of chat this week about who has been the best European side of all time.

On BT Sport former England international and Leicester legend Austin Healey said: ‘I think the current Leinster side are the best of all time, if I had to pick one out. They are a sensational side to watch – they are the sort of team you’d love to play for.’

World Cup winner and two-time European Cup champion Lawrence Dallaglio plumped for the 2001-02 Leicester side saying: ‘Having won their domestic and European titles back-to-back, they did the double-double. To win on both front takes a lot. I look at domestic and European form together.’

Johnny Sexton's Leinster are Austin Healey's pick for the best European team ever 

Johnny Sexton’s Leinster are Austin Healey’s pick for the best European team ever 

And Healey added that each dominant side across the eras – Leinster, Leicester, Wasps and Saracens, had great coaching teams, except Toulouse.

If domestic and European success combined is the ticket lets analyse the main contenders – the eras picked are when they were most dominant at home and on the continent. European titles are the Heineken/Champions Cup – not the second-tier Challenge Cup.

SARACENS 2014-2018

European titles (2): 2016, 2017 League titles (3): 2015, 2016, 2018

European runners-up (1): 2014 League runners-up (1): 2014

WASPS 2002-2008

European titles (2): 2004, 2007 League titles (4): 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008

European runners-up (0) League runners-up (0)

LEICESTER 1999-2002

European titles (2): 2001, 2002 League titles (4): 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002

European runners-up (0) League runners-up (0)

TOULON 2012-2015

European titles (3): 2013, 2014, 2015 League titles (1): 2014

European runners-up (0) League runners-up (2): 2012, 2013

LEINSTER 2009-2014

European titles (3): 2009, 2011, 2012 League titles (3): 2008, 2013, 2014

European runners-up (0) League runners-up (3): 2010, 2011, 2012

(Leinster’s current crop of 2016-present have only won one league title and one European Cup, so cannot yet be considered better than their previous vintage)

TOULOUSE 1996-2006

European titles (3): 1996, 2003, 2005 League titles (6): 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001

European runners-up (1): 2004 League runners-up (2): 2003, 2006

Looking at that, there is only one winner. And those Toulouse numbers are just a snapshot of their time. He might be a figure of fun now, but former French coach Guy Noves oversaw by far the most dominant era in European rugby.

Between 1993 and 2015 he won all the above, plus a fourth Heineken Cup in 2010, and French league titles in 1994, 2008, 2011 and 2012. So that’s 14 trophies – domestic and European success over more than a decade.

Recency bias can be a funny old thing. No question the now faded Toulouse are still the kings of Europe’s past and the best of all time, for now. Leinster have a long way to go to match them. Seal fifth European Cup and back up their Pro14 title we can talk again.

One game for Eddie Jones this weekend – he’s given himself Friday and Saturday off, but will be at Saracens v Cardiff where there are a whole host of England players involved. Perhaps Nick Isiekwe and Michael Rhodes, on the fringes of his squad, will catch his eye.

Eddie Jones will be at Saracens v Cardiff on Sunday in his only game of the weekend 

Eddie Jones will be at Saracens v Cardiff on Sunday in his only game of the weekend 

4 TEAMS are two wins from two so far. Toulouse, Saracens, Racing 92 and Newcastle are the only teams who have a perfect record in the tournament.

18 YEARS since Saracens played Cardiff in Europe. In the 2000 Heineken Cup the Welsh won both ties, first 32-23 away in London and then 24-14 back at home the following week. Jenkins kicked all those in the second match, hours after receiving an MBE from the Queen.

2 SEASONS in a row now that the Scarlets have gone into round three with two defeats – and last season they made the semi-final.

15TH MEETING between Munster and Castres in Europe – no two sides have played each other more. And Munster have not lost the last seven, winning six and drawing one.

12 MATCHES unbeaten against French opposition for Wasps. The one draw in those dozen was against Toulouse in 2016-17. But they have not won in Europe yet this season – lose again and it will be their worst start since 2005-06.

4 DEFEATS from four by Gloucester against English opposition in Europe. This is the first time Exeter will face a fellow Premiership side, though.

10 KICKS from 10 made by top marksmen Johnny Sexton and Joel Hodgson in the tournament. No one has hit more.

0 LYON have never before played a Scottish side in Europe – they come up against Glasgow on Saturday.

10 DEFENDERS beaten by Steve Mafi of Castres, the most in the competition by a forward. Ridiculously that is only from six carries!

Steve Mafi has been beating defenders for fun in the European Cup this season

Steve Mafi has been beating defenders for fun in the European Cup this season

SCARLETS v ULSTER 

Friday 7.45pm Parc y Scarlets BT Sport 3 from 7.30pm

James Davies and Samson Lee are back for the Scarlets who have lost both European games so far.

‘Cubby Boi’ is back earlier than expected from a knee injury, and Lee is over hamstring problem.

Rory Best captains Ulster who have All Black tamer Jacob Stockdale out wide.

Prediction: Home win – Must win for the Welsh. They better, so they will.

EDINBURGH v NEWCASTLE 

Friday 7.45pm Murrayfield BT Sport 2 from 7pm

Dean Richards has almost an entire team of injured players so picks a heavily rotated team – with Mark Wilson the biggest absentee.

The England flanker has an ear infection and is one of 14 casualties. It means the likes of Gary Graham, Tevita Cavubati, Callum Chick and Adam Radwan start.

Edinburgh are much stronger, with Stuart McInally, WP Nel, Hamish Watson and Blair Kinghorn all starting.

Prediction: Home win – the Falcons’ unbeaten run to end over the border.

EXETER v GLOUCESTER 

Saturday 1pm Sandy Park BT Sport 2 from 12.30pm

Henry Slade is restored to the starting team for Exeter as England’s Ben Moon starts at prop.

Alec Hepburn is on the bench and Gareth Steenson plays instead of Joe Simmonds at fly-half.

Gloucester bring in hooker Jaco Visagie as well as Matt Banahan, Tom Hudson and Henry Trinder.

Prediction: Home win – a vital first of this European campaign for the Chiefs.

LYON v GLASGOW 

Saturday 1pm Matmut Stadium BT Sport 3 from 12.45pm

Glasgow make 12 changes as Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour all return to the starting XV.

Lyon have Englishman Carl Fearns at No 8, maverick French No 10 Lionel Beauxis and big Fijian-French winger Noa Nakaitaci starting.

Prediction: Home win – disappointing so far, Lyon to turn up at last.

TOULON v MONTPELLIER 

Saturday 3.15pm Stade Mayol BT Sport 3 from 3pm

Toulon start Julian Savea at centre, alongside Malakai Fekitoa as they desperately look for answers to their poor form.

Montpellier have Johan Goosen at fly-half and Yacouba Camara at openside flanker.

Prediction: Away win – Toulon are in a state, Montpellier to cash in.

BATH v LEINSTER 

Saturday 3pm The Rec BT Sport 2 from 3pm

Jamie Roberts is fit after fracturing his cheekbone in September, so returns at centre for Bath.

James Wilson plays fly-half instead of the injured Freddie Burns, and Dave Attwood plays lock.

World player of the year Johnny Sexton is in to captain champions Leinster, with Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Rob Kearney, James Lowe and Garry Ringrose all starting too.

Prediction: Away win – and a heavy one at that, the way Bath have been going.

Bath will be struggling against the dominance of Leinster at the Rec this weekend 

Bath will be struggling against the dominance of Leinster at the Rec this weekend 

WASPS v TOULOUSE 

Saturday 5.30pm Ricoh Arena BT Sport 2 from 5.15

Thomas Young starts at openside flanker for Wasps, who have Brad Shields, Nathan Hughes, Elliot Daly and Lima Sopoaga in their XV.

Toulouse, unbeaten so far, pick Cheslin Kolbe and Yoann Huget on the wings, with Maxime Mermoz at centre.

Prediction: Home win – One to lift Wasps from the bottom of their tight pool.

SARACENS v CARDIFF BLUES 

Sunday 1pm Allianz Park BT Sport 3 from 12.30pm

Mako Vunipola is back for Saracens having sat out the autumn with a calf injury – but Maro Itoje is out until the New Year with a knee injury.

Owen Farrell returns at fly-half too as Jamie George plays his 50th European match. Gareth Anscombe wears No 10 for the Blues.

Prediction: Home win – No chance for Cardiff here. Sarries are on a roll.

MUNSTER v CASTRES 

Sunday 1pm Thomond Park BT Sport 2 from 12.30pm

CJ Stander and Joey Carbery are the only two changes for Munster from the win over Edinburgh last week.

Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne and Conor Murray all play. Castres pick Scott Spedding at full-back.

Prediction: Home win – Probably the simplest call of the weekend, despite Castres beating Exeter before.

RACING 92 v LEICESTER 

Sunday 3.15pm U Arena BT Sport 3 from 3pm

Ben Youngs is rested for Leicester’s trip to Paris, as Ben White comes in a scrum-half – but George Ford, Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and Ellis Genge all start.

The French finalists from last year have Simon Zebo on the right wign, Fijian star Leone Nakarawa at lock and Scot Finn Russell at fly-half.

Prediction: Home win – And it could be by plenty, the way Leicester are defending.