Extraordinary matchups define opening weekend in Champions Cup pool 1

Extraordinary matchups define opening weekend in Champions Cup pool 1

If ever there’s a pool full of extraordinarily tough places to go in an Investec Champions’ Cup season, it’s in Pool 1 of this year’s competition. Full of elite level sides who play in astonishing atmospheres, the stage is set for three exhilarating opening matches.

Three-time winners Saracens will open their tournament with a trip to Loftus Versfeld to take on Vodacom Bulls, while Union Bordeaux-Bègles will have to face the elements in their game at Connacht Rugby and Lyon will have to contend with the English weather at Bristol Bears' Ashton Gate. It’s a pool full of intimidation and muscle.

Farrell fears no challenge 

Loftus will be toughest of all, perhaps. Sarries have that challenge up first, while Bordeaux will also need to go there in January. Heat, humidity and altitude will all combine to give the travelling rugby player a unique challenge - but one 2017 EPCR Player of the Year Owen Farrell told us he welcomes. 

“I’m not used to playing there in their summer so that will be different, it will be a nice break,” said Farrell. 

“It will be different for a lot of the lads but it’s an exciting challenge to have.” 

Saracens are perennially mentioned among the favourites for the competition, not least on account of their pedigree - and Farrell is confident. 

“We are where we are, and I think we have an unbelievable squad at the minute and we’ve added to that this year,” he said. 

“We’ve grown stronger hopefully, but it’s up to us what we do with it, up to us how we build on that and how we develop over this next year. 

“Hopefully part of that is going as far as we can in this tournament, we want to go better than we did last year, and we feel like we can.” 

Boyle and Connacht back for more 

Connacht’s Paul Boyle concurred with the assessment of the tough pool, but also noted that the tough challenges and exotic away days are the reasons to embrace the competition. 

“Some of my best rugby memories are in the Champions Cup, and hopefully we’ll be able to replicate some of that in the coming season,” he said. 

“It’s the closest you can get to Test rugby. You’re playing not only the best teams but the best players. It’s a really exciting place to be, and a real good test of where you’re at.” 

“It’s a really tough group, going to be some brilliant games and we feel we’re up for the challenge.” 

Bristol hope for reprieve 

If asked now, on the eve of the tournament, anybody associated with Bristol might note that the Bears form is not currently where they want it to be, with several defeats in the Gallagher English Premiership. 

But the Investec Champions Cup is a different tournament and with a win under their belt after last weekend’s demolition of Gloucester Rugby, captain Fitz Harding hopes it can help the Bears restart their season and build on the success of their 2020 EPCR Challenge Cup win. 

“It’s always really special. EPCR competitions are something a bit different and something you always look forward to in the season, the Premiership is hugely competitive, but the Champions Cup gives us a chance to fight on multiple fronts, almost like a fresh start,” he said. 

“The nice thing about the Investec Champions Cup is you come up against teams you don’t come across every day. 

“I want more [EPCR success]. Winning the Challenge Cup was a massive moment in the club’s history, it was a really big moment where we announced ourselves on the European stage. It was a really special memory, and I think there’s still a core group of that team that have special memories of that. 

“But it’s not the be all and end all, you’re only as good as what you’re achieving at your current stage and the reality is we probably haven’t been where we want to be for a couple of years. It’s massive for us to be back in the Champions Cup, it’s huge to fight on the biggest stage.” 

Mchunu relishes ‘competition of champions’ 

Vodacom Bulls prop Khutha Mchunu reckons the tournament, and EPCR participation, has helped his country become stronger. 

“Historically, the Champions Cup has always been the competition of champions,” he said. 

“Your top teams in the world in each competition in Europe plays against each other and whoever wins that can call themselves the best in the world.  

“Every week we’re playing against internationals, the best players in the world so it really does raise your game and make you a better player.” 

Pool 1 in the Investec Champions Cup 2023-24 gets underway this Friday when Connacht host UBB. Vodacom Bulls then host Saracens the following day, with Bristol facing Lyon in the evening of that same Saturday. 

Latest News