New European Champions Cup begins with Toulon setting out for third defence

Toulon will embark on a mission for a third straight European title in the newer, leaner European Champions Cup while last year's semi-finalists Saracens host Clermont on the opening weekend.

Toulon are second in the Top 14 table nine matches into the 2014/15 season. Pascal Pavani / AFP
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Double defending champions Toulon begin the defence of their European crown at home to Scarlets this weekend, while last year’s beaten finalists Saracens entertain French heavyweights Clermont in a revamped competition.

Now known as the European Champions Cup, the tournament has been pared down to 20 teams (seven English, six French, three Irish, two Welsh, one Scottish and one Italian) in five pools, the product of more than two years of political wrangling between the English, French and Celtic nations.

Only the five pool winners and the three best pool runners-up will qualify for the knock-out stage.

It means each weekend throws up must-win matches in some very tough pools, but Toulon captain Carl Hayman was confident his star-studded side could go the distance for a third successive season, with the final slated for Twickenham on May 2.

“It’s within our capabilities to have a hat-trick of European wins,” the former All Black prop told the November edition of Rugby World magazine, with Leicester and Ulster making up a strong Pool 3.

“We have enough in the squad to make the play-offs, but must top our pool to get a game at the Mayol, Nice or Marseille.

“People say ‘It’s the same size field’, but percentages show that home advantage makes a win more likely.”

Hayman is one of a host of international stars playing for the Mourad Boudjellal-funded, Bernard Laporte-coached Toulon side, for whom English talisman Johnny Wilkinson will be missing having retired at the end of last season.

But the New Zealander said that their first European victory in 2013 was a turning point for a team often derided for bringing in aging international imports rather than relying on home-grown French talent.

“Toulon has changed a lot. It’s more professional and a lot of that comes from Bernard Laporte. It’s almost been a fairytale ride for this club since 2007,” Hayman said.

“It’s been a quick rise since they got promoted and if you talk to Mourad Boudjellal he can scarcely believe the speed we have improved at.”

That first European Cup win in 2013, sealed by a 16-15 final victory over Top 14 rivals Clermont, “was a real source of pride – that mercenary tag was beginning to wear thin”.

“Except in amateur rugby, no team is made up of just locals, particularly in France,” Hayman insisted.

“But we have that label. So winning was good to get back at critics who said this was just a retirement home in the South of France.”

There has also been change at Clermont, who have seen coach Vern Cotter take over Scotland.

The club will be seeking to avenge last season’s European Cup semi-final mauling at the hands of Saracens when the two sides clash in their opening Pool 1 game.

The French side were trounced 46-6 at Twickenham in the semi-finals last term before the English side went on to lose the final against Toulon.

“They are a huge outfit, and they have a lot of good players,” Saracens’ Scotland lock Jim Hamilton said of Clermont.

“I think it’s fair to say they’re one of the most respected teams in Europe.

“Statistically, Clermont have the best scrum in the Top 14. Like all French sides they have a great maul, and they have some really physical players,” said Hamilton, who previously played for Montpellier.

“That’s something we’re aware of and something we are preparing for, but we are relishing the challenge as well.”

English Premiership champions Northampton Saints are away at Racing Metro in Pool 5, Ospreys meeting sole Italian representatives Treviso in the other group game.

Celtic League champions Leinster will entertain Wasps in Pool 2, with struggling Top 14 club Castres travelling to Harlequins.

Four-time winners Toulouse entertain Montpellier and Glasgow host Bath in Pool 4.

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