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If not the defending champs, then who? 5 teams to challenge Leinster's European throne

The eastern province look well capable of being the best team in Europe again this year, but this chasing pack won’t be easily shaken off.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS OF late, have shown a healthy habit of repeating themselves.

Once, the prospect of securing back-to-back Heineken Champions Cups seemed a rare feat, but Leicester Tigers’ 2001 and 2002 triumphs have become less of an outlier as the century matured.

Indeed, since Leinster themselves completed a successful title defence in 2012, only two clubs have followed them onto the podium: first came Toulon’s unparalleled triple success and then Saracens shed the bridesmaids tag emphatically to secure two titles in short order.

The arithmetic of bookmakers lines up with the sequential theory, suggesting a fifth star for Leinster to stitch in above their crest come May. Or perhaps the competition offer up a challenger to reclaim the trophy again, maybe even a brand new winner.

Here are the leading challengers to upset the odds and deny Leinster. 

Saracens

Mark McCall’s men suffered as much as England in the wake of the Lions tour to New Zealand, failing in a bid to replicate Toulon’s three-in-row thanks mainly to two defeats to Clermont in the space of six December days.

Their European run ended with a loss to a Dan Leavy-inspired Leinster at the quarter-final stage in the Aviva Stadium. But Sarries continued improving as the season wore on to claim the Premiership title at Exeter’s expense.

Harlequins v Saracens - Gallagher Premiership - Twickenham Stoop Source: PA Wire/PA Images

With Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Alex Lozowski fighting fit, they have been near-perfect through the first six games of the new season.

In Pool 3 they will find opponents eager to take a big scalp in Glasgow Warriors, Lyon and Cardiff, but have undoubted pedigree in this competition to navigate their way through.

Racing 92

Last year’s beaten finalists may have lost Dan Carter, but now fully settled in the U Arena, they have quality out-half options in Finn Russell and Ben Volavola to operate between a mean pack and electric backs – Simon Zebo chief among them.

Domestic form has been patchy so far this season, with last weekend’s home loss to Lyon marking their their third defeat of the season.

However, a return to Europe — beginning with a pool-defining trip to Scarlets before clashes with Ulster and Leicester — ought to be the kick they need. 

Montpellier

Denied the Bouclier de Brennus by Castres last season, Montpellier ought to return to Europe with hunger in a second year under Vern Cotter.

Vern Cotter Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Joe Schmidt’s old partner in crime will be hampered by injury concerns in early pool clashes with Edinburgh and Newcastle as Nemani Nadolo, Benoit Paillaugue and Johannes Goosen are expected to be sidelined.

Fortunately, All Black Aaron Cruden could make his return from a calf injury this week and showcase why the southern French side are fourth favourites to triumph in Europe.

Exeter Chiefs

Third favourites, according to the bookmakers (behind Leinster and Saracens), are another club accounted for during Leinster’s march to the glory last season.

Make no mistake, though, Leo Cullen’s men knew they had been through a war after their intense back-to-backs with Rob Baxter’s side.

This season, the Devon club have hit the ground running in the Premiership matching Saracens point for point and try for try, leading the table on points difference.

In a pool with Munster, Gloucester and Castres, the Chiefs won’t be handed the European breakthrough season they crave, but they have a robust, high-tempo and multi-threat game to pose any team problems in or out of Sandy Park.

Munster

It’s 10 long years since Munster claimed their second Heineken Cup, but even in some incredibly unlikely scenarios the competition’s most evocative team have persistently put themselves in a position to knock on the door.

Six times since 2008, Munster have reached the final four of the tournament. Six times they have lost, and they are sick of it.

Billy Holland competes for a line out Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With a head coach set to oversee their season from start to finish for the first time since 2015-16, a newly-contracted Conor Murray expected to return to fitness and the stardust offered by Joey Carbery behind a typically uncompromising pack, this iteration of Munster will be a serious force when Johann van Graan gets his best side on the field.

Of course, the not inconsiderable hurdle of Exeter lays before them this weekend. Escape the pool and they will go far again.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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