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Dublin: 17 °C Friday 22 June, 2018

5 players who will dominate the Champions Cup this season

We’ve picked out players from Toulon, Munster, Northampton, Saracens and Leinster as influential figures.

Matt Giteau

The Australian recently resisted the temptation of a €1million per annum offer from Racing Métro to replace Johnny Sexton at the end of the season, instead signing on for two more years at Toulon, with the option of a third.

Matt Giteau celebrates his try Matt Giteau remains Toulon's most important player. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That may well be the smartest move RCT president Mourad Boudjellal has ever made in terms of contracting, such is Giteau’s importance to the French juggernaut. There is quality all around him, but the 32-year-old remains the key cog in the Toulon machine.

Giteau has stepped in at out-half with Jonny Wilkinson now retired and the transition has been seamless. The former Wallaby is a calm, intelligent presence and provides the crucial creative influence alongside the aggressive power within the rest of Toulon’s squad.

There is little doubt that Giteau could still perform at international level, but his focus is on ensuring RCT make it three European titles in-a-row.

Paul O’Connell

Another relative veteran, but also one who has started the season in strong form. O’Connell is among those who voiced concerns that Munster hadn’t played with enough variety under Rob Penney, despite two consecutive Heineken Cup semi-finals.

Paul O'Connell celebrates O'Connell has top-level European pedigree. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The sense is that the 34-year-old will be far more suited to what Anthony Foley asks of him, as clearly in evidence in the victory over Leinster two weekends ago. That game plan suited O’Connell to a tee, with the lock rushing up hard in defence, completing dominant tackles, spoiling at the breakdown and making simple carries.

While it’s never desirable to limit any player’s remit, O’Connell himself admits that he is essentially a work-rate player. That ignores his technical quality, of course, but the Ireland captain is built for duties such as those he carried out against Leinster.

The big Pool 1 clashes, in particular Saracens at home in round two and Clermont away in round three, are likely to bring out the best in the Munster second row.

George North

It’s been seven long years since an English side last claimed top honours in Europe, and while Saracens will compete strongly again, the Northampton Saints feel that they can be the ones to bridge the gap.

George North The Welshman's attacking skills will be important for Northampton. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Following last season’s Premiership and Challenge Cup titles, Jim Mallinder’s men come into this tournament among the favourites, and a cursory glance at their squad justifies that status.

North was not consistently at his very best in his first season with the Saints in 2013/14, following his Lions exploits, but the 22-year-old wing has started this season in impressive form.

In Pool 5 with Racing Métro, Treviso and the Ospreys, North looks certain to be heavily among the tries, while his incredible power and pace will also be utilised as he comes off his wing to threaten in midfield and from starter plays.

Billy Vunipola

With older brother Mako missing, Vunipola’s ball-carrying is all the more important for Mark McCall’s Saracens. Still only 21, the explosive No. 8 will lead the charge with ball in hands as the Englishmen look to power past Munster, Clermont and Sale in Pool 1.

Billy Vunipola Vunipola's mass and power make him a constant danger. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Following last season’s Heineken Cup final disappointment against Toulon, as well as the defeat to Northampton in the Premiership decider, McCall has spoken about the lessons learned in losing being a driving factor for Sarries this season.

Vunipola was perhaps not as destructive as he can be during England’s summer Tests against New Zealand, but there is little doubt as to his quality in European club competition after he started all nine of Saracens’ games last season.

Tackling the 126kg back row is no straightforward task, while he continues to develop his breakdown skills, defensive involvements, support play and game awareness, as well as building his fitness levels.

Jamie Heaslip

Another No. 8, and the leading figure for Leinster as they look to cope with the absence of Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien during the pool stages. A group containing Castres, Harlequins and Wasps looks manageable even with those key carriers missing.

Jamie Heaslip with the team mascots There is much responsibility for Heaslip this season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That said, it will be up to Heaslip to shoulder much of the burden in their absence. Not only are Healy and O’Brien dominant athletes, they are also key drivers of Leinster’s mindset and desire, particularly the Tullow man.

Heaslip has his own unique style of captaincy, and will attempt to lead through actions as well as words. The 30-year-old looks in excellent condition [no shock there] and should thrive as Matt O’Connor asks him to get his hands on the ball more often.

Leinster have argued that last season’s quarter-final defeat to Toulon did not signal the end of their status as being among the European elite, and Heaslip is highly motivated to ensure that the Pro12 champions prove their point.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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