Brian O’Driscoll backs Exeter as Champions Cup favourites along with Saracens, Leinster

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Brian O’Driscoll has tipped Exeter Chiefs as favourites to lift the Champions Cup title this season, along with recent winners Leinster and Saracens.

Exeter have yet to make it further than the quarterfinals of the competition and were beaten twice by eventual champions Leinster in the pool stages of the tournament last year.

But the Chiefs have displayed remarkable consistency domestically over the last few seasons and have reached the last three Premiership finals, winning the title in 2017.

Rob Baxter’s side have been drawn with Munster, Castres and Gloucester this season and O’Driscoll, who won the Champions Cup three times as a player, has backed the Chiefs to challenge for the title this campaign, which gets underway on Friday night.

“For me at the moment looking at form, I think there are three teams that are capable of winning right now,” O’Driscoll told ESPN. “There are the last two winners of the competition in Saracens and Leinster, but I think Exeter have emerged as real potential victors.

“Their consistency and performance in the Premiership and the experience they’ve built up over the last few seasons playing tough opposition, with the disappointment that would have come last year playing against Leinster, and not losing by a whole lot against them, I think that will serve them well.

“Sandy Park has become a real fortress and Exeter are in great form, both at home and on the road. They are starting to rear their heads as a potential winner of the competition because of their consistency over the past four or five years.”

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Exeter kick off their Champions Cup campaign at home to Munster on Saturday, in a match that O’Driscoll has highlighted as the pick of the opening round of fixtures.

“I’m intrigued by what is going to happen between Exeter and Munster,” said O’Driscoll, who was speaking to ESPN as a BT Sport ambassador and analyst.

“Munster have developed their caliber and reputation by going to difficult places and grinding out tough wins, but this is going to be right up there.

“They have been a little bit inconsistent by their standards recently, not so good away from home, but they then showed great signs last weekend against Leinster at the Aviva.

“I think that it will be a great European fixture and if Munster are to win it they’ll have to do what Leinster did last year at Sandy Park and really be close to their best.”

Leinster kick off their Champions Cup defence on Friday night against two-time winners Wasps, and O’Driscoll believes his former side will have too much for their Premiership opponents.

“I think Leinster have evolved their game from last year,” O’Driscoll said. “I think whatever Stuart Lancaster is doing with them in training has rejuvenated the side once again.

“There’s none of this looking back at last year’s success. They’re looking at taking the next step forward and looking at what they need to do to evolve their game and stay ahead of the curve.

“Wasps are missing some key personnel. Dan Robson is a massive loss, Jimmy Gopperth at the start of the season with his cruciate injury, and losing Nathan Hughes having been cited last weekend.

“So they are some big players for Wasps and when you’re going to tough places like Dublin you need to be fully locked and loaded.”

Premiership winners Saracens were the only English side to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions Cup last season, as Exeter, Wasps, Harlequins, Bath and Leicester all crashed out in the pool stages.

But despite what happened last year, O’Driscoll dismissed the English sides’ struggles in Europe as a blip and backed the Premiership sides to bounce back this campaign.

“I don’t think you can ever read into those things too much.” O’Driscoll said. “The concern would be if it happened two years on the bounce. Ireland had one of those years about three seasons ago where they had no one in the quarterfinals and there was a lot of finger-pointing going on then.

“There are nearly always factors behind these things but I think in the Premiership’s case it was just a blip. Still, Saracens made the quarterfinal against Leinster and they were probably Leinster’s greatest test last season.

“I think they will be back in the mix again undoubtedly and I fancy them to be there or thereabouts come the end of it.”

BT Sport brings you the moments that matter with exclusively live action from every Heineken Champions Cup match this season. Watch all ten first round games this weekend, including Leinster v Wasps on BT Sport 2 this Friday from 19:00. Watch on TV and via the award winning BT Sport App. bt.com/sport



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