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Wednesday, 16 January, 2019

French favourites worth taking on in tight pools

Munster and Ulster can lead Irish charge

Jacob Stockdale and Charles Piutau are a formidable strike force for Ulster
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Pool One
7-4 La Rochelle, 11-5 Wasps, 11-2  Ulster, 9 Harlequins
La Rochelle, riding high in the Top 14 and with a wealth of expensively assembled talent in their ranks, head the betting but the question is how will they perform in their debut season at the top level in Europe?

If they should be slow to find their feet, or even choose to prioritise domestic success, then second-favourites Wasps are easy to overlook with a poor run of form and a huge injury list, so suddenly Ulster look a huge price at 11-2 to make their experience and doggedness count.

The La Rochelle teamsheet for their opener at Harlequins on Saturday will offer some clues, but Ulster have already shown they have the all-round game and can make their power count against Wasps and Harlequins.

Outsiders Quins look too inconsistent and may struggle to stand up to the dominant La Rochelle and Ulster packs.

1pt 11-2 Sky Bet

Pool Two
4-7 Saracens, 15-8 Clermont, 25 Northampton, 80 Ospreys
Defending champions Saracens are understandably odds-on to top this section although that may be a little short given they are up against last season's runners-up Clermont and Premiership rivals Northampton.

The French outfit were well beaten in the 2017 final but had the upper hand on Sarries the last time the teams were in the same pool in 2014-15, winning the home encounter and their semi-final meeting.

And although Saracens destroyed Northampton in the first half of the opening match of the Premiership this season, the Saints have bounced back from that low point and will be fired up for Sunday's rematch at Franklin's Gardens.

Ospreys have been way off their best in the Pro14 and even their huge odds aren't enough to tempt.

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Pool Three
6-4 Leinster, 2 Montpellier, 7-2 Exeter, 12 Glasgow
This has been dubbed the pool of death and it's likely all four teams will take points off each other but it's hard to fancy favourites Leinster despite their impressive European pedigree.

The Irish outfit topped a middling section with a decent points haul last season but came rock-bottom when up against Toulon and a high-flying Wasps side two years ago.

Beaten in the semi-finals last season and in the Pro14 final the year before, they seem to have lost the art of winning big games, and they will face six of those in this line-up.

If backing Glasgow at 80-1 to lift the trophy seems too much of a reach, the 12-1 that they top this section is a value alternative.

Pool Four
6-5 Munster, 15-8 Racing, 11-2 Leicester, 16 Castres
There are three big names in this pool but two of them are hard to fancy and favourites Munster are worth backing to get the better of them.

Racing reached the final two seasons ago but were bottom of their section last time with just one win and it has already been apparent this season that the star names in their squad are not combining to produce coherent performances.

Three wins in seven Top 14 outings is a poor return and they have lost their last three.

Leicester had a disastrous European campaign last season and although they have got back on track in the Premiership after losnig their first two matches, there is a feeling they aren't playing at their peak. 

They have yet to garner a try bonus point and struggled to put away a London Irish side who looked at their mercy in the first half on Saturday, winning by one point.

3pts 6-5 Betway, Hills, Sky Bet

Pool Five
4-6 Toulon, 3 Scarlets, 5 Bath, 500 Treviso
Like Saracens, Toulon look short at odds-on and in this pool there appears to be a team who can take them on.

Pro12 champions Scarlets have come up against Toulon in two of the last three campaigns and edged them by a point last December at Parc y Scarlets, where they also held champions Saracens to a draw.

Their only defeat this season has come at Ulster, where they claimed a losing bonus point, and going to the Stade Felix Mayol Stadium on Sunday for their opener could prove good timing as Toulon have not convinced at all this season and do not look the sum of their parts.

Bath have begun the season well and their defence looks strong so this could well turn into a hard-fought battle but Scarlets look the pick.

1pt 3-1 Betfred

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The La Rochelle teamsheet for their opener at Harlequins on Saturday will offer some clues
E.W. Terms
Sky bet