Champions Cup 2019/20: Players to Watch

Ruan Ackermann

With the Champions Cup starting this weekend soon after the thrilling climax to the World Cup, it’s a good time to look ahead at some of the most exciting players on offer.

Many standout players from the global stage will most likely be in action again this weekend but there are plenty of up-and-coming stars on this list that can spring a surprise or two.

Pool 1

James Grayson, Northampton

With Biggar returning from the World Cup it’s likely Northampton will start the Welshman, but in his absence Grayson has been putting in some stellar performances. Following on from his form last year, Grayson offers a steady boot as well as flashes of brilliance that are attuned to Northampton’s playing style of edge to edge trying to open teams up. With a dangerous backline outside him Grayson could be an option off the bench if they find their backs against the wall. He’s still very young but has shown a lot of promise, especially in last year’s premiership cup, and it will be interesting to see if he gets a shot in this years Champions Cup.

Demba Bamba, Lyon

A thigh injury stopped us seeing him at his best this World Cup but the young prop is a force to be reckoned with all over the park, be it at scrum time or in the loose. Lyon will call on his ball-carrying prowess in the hopes to generate quick ball for the likes of Tuisova out wide who is a terror to defences. He’s only going to grow with each game which is a scary prospect for others in the group. With Lyon currently sitting top of the Top 14 they will be full of confidence and if this man starts rampaging around the pitch they could be in with a good chance of progressing.

Pool 2

Jono Ross, Sale

Sometimes hidden behind some of Sale’s superstars but make no mistake, Ross is a no nonsense hard working ball of muscle. He leads from the front and is a wall in defence, exactly the type of leader needed if Sale are going to get anything out of this group. If he can galvanise his team they have enough class to beat anyone and with World Cup winners returning to the squad they are very strong. Watch out for Ross over the ball: he’s a hard man to move and can win important penalties at crucial times. It’s great to see Sale back in Europe’s elite and Ross is certainly capable of taking them beyond the group.

Vincent Rattez, La Rochelle

Some of you may remember his tries in last year’s tournament, and this man is truly a joy to watch. Everything that’s good about French rugby is expressed in his style of play; brave, classy and with enough flair to light up a Turkish football stadium. Kickers will have to beware with him in the backfield, especially in the latter stages of a game with a tiring kick chase. The La Rochelle forward pack have got plenty of grunt and if they can get the ball into the wide channels they are going to be a difficult team to contain.

Pool 3

Peceli Yato, Clermont

The perfect athlete. Fast, powerful and smart. Yato has been a revelation at Clermont and will no doubt leave nightmares in the heads of his opposition after this year’s campaign. He has the pace to get to almost every breakdown, the power to hold off opposition but also the intelligence to pick the perfect time to attack the ruck and gain turnovers. With ball in hand he is equally as dangerous with the offloading skill that all Fijians seem to be blessed with. As a neutral to this group it’s a great prospect getting to watch this man in full flight.

Billy Burns, Ulster

Since his move over to Ireland, Burns has grown significantly as a player with many questioning whether he would be in line for an Ireland call up. He’s been pushing Ulster around the park incredibly well and scoring plenty of points along the way. This year’s Champions Cup could be a real chance for him to prove himself and he’s definitely ready for the challenge with the belief the rest of the squad have in how he wants to play the game. Ulster are in a tough group with some of the firepower around them but I’m sure Billy will be excited for a potential head-to-head against his brother.

Pool 4

Adam Beard, Ospreys

A decent World Cup for Wales with many players holding their heads high and Adam Beard was one of those. With a similar leadership group around him as there was in Japan he should flourish in the Champions Cup environment especially in some of the big games like Munster and Racing away where you need players to front up. He’s a real workhorse of a player and a great lineout option which will boost Ospreys’ set piece giving them a platform to really get stuck into some of the big names in this group. It’s going to be tough going for Ospreys but they have some warriors in their squad and Beard will only add to their grunt up front.

Ben Volavola, Racing

The age old mantra that ‘Fiji are great but they can’t control a game’ has well and truly died a death and the World Cup was proof of that. Fiji ran Australia and Wales close while destroying Georgia in a clinical display, a lot of which can be attributed to their fly half Volavola. A prime example of how good you can be if you play heads up rugby but still performing a set game plan. For Racing he has been in great form and can cover both fly half and fullback for them. Its a tantalising mix having two players as creative as him and Finn Russell on the pitch at the same time and I’m sure under the lights at their new stadium, teams will find it very hard to stop their attacking game.

Pool 5

Sofiane Guitoune, Toulouse

His pass to set up the try of last year’s tournament was sensational but it was no one off. Guitoune offers a real spark in the outside channels giving him the ability to attract defenders and create space for others. That being said he is a dangerous runner capable of scoring individual tries if given the space and time. Part of the most exciting backline in the tournament, defences will need to be razor sharp to compete against them otherwise the tries will keep on coming. Dupont and Ntamack are the key to this Toulouse side but Guitoune always gives them options, be it through the middle or on the outside.

Ruan Ackermann, Gloucester

Mr Consistent for Gloucester whether it be carrying hard, stealing turnovers or shutting down attacks, Ackermann seems to do it all week in week out to an incredible level. His mobility allows him to be a nuisance in all aspects of his game, helping Gloucester to play an open brand of rugby. He’s not scared to get on the scoresheet either and is effective from short range, something that may be called upon if games tighten up. With 2 big packs in Montpellier and Toulouse, Ackermann will have to be at his best to give Gloucester a chance of winning against the two French heavy weights.

By Tim Lloyd

14 thoughts on “Champions Cup 2019/20: Players to Watch

  1. Adam Beard?
    Not a great player, very ordinary, luck to have as many Wales caps as he does.

    Also Grayson has great promise but way to early to be singling him out especially seeing as he is likely to start from the bench. surely better to call out Hutchinson or Naiyarovoro

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    1. Beard was kept by Gatland despite an injury pre world Cup so he must have seen something in him.

      Agree with you Hutchinson and Naiyarovoro are great players who will no doubt make a big impact! As mentioned in the article Grayson maybe used as impact off the bench but has the potential to change a game if its not going saints wayv

      1. Wales don’t have great depth at lock as shown when Bradly Davies was called up to replace the injured Cory Hill. Beard was retained due to lack of other options. if you were looking for an Osprey to include in your list I would have gone with Own Watkin who will be looking to lay down a marker and claim the Ales shirt for his own while JD is out injured

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      2. Tim, don’t know enough about Hutchinson, so can’t state whether he’s gr8 or not. You’ll know better than me. However, Naiyanavoro, who can be devastating going fwd, I’m unsure about his defensive positioning or tackling technique at times. Also, has he a tendency to carry the ball under his inside arm, thus making it more difficult to fend off a tackler? Regds Grayson, just because he may mostly feature from the bench, this doesn’t mean that he should be excluded from yr ‘Players to Watch list’. Especially if he ‘has gr8 promise’. Will keep my eyes peeled.

        1. Hutchinson is a slick operator in the outside channels got plenty of pace and runs smart lines.

          In terms of Naiyanavoro carrying in the inside arm I think it’s possibly because rather then fend he tends to bounce the player off and using the ball, although risky, can help to bounce players. Hope you enjoy the games this weekend!

  2. As a Saffer rugby nut of many years standing I am surprised at the number of foreign imports mentioned in various posts. What has happened to the local talent, don’t they get a mention??

    1. There’s a few home grown players on this list but sadly the top talent in Europe seem to be imports. These a lot of good players sitting in the academies and hopefully we will see more of them in the next few seasons! Also congrats on the world cup well deserved from a great squad

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  3. As I don’t know a fair few of the above listed, it would have been useful to have included their positions as well Tim. Guessed some. Others here may know them better? I can look them up I suppose.

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    1. On reflection that would have been very useful!

      For reference: Grayson – Fly half, Bamba – prop, Ross – Back row, Rattez – Fullback, Yato – Back Row, Burns – Fly Half, Beard – 2nd Row, Volavola – Fly half/Fullback, Guitoune – Centre, Ackerman – Back Row

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      1. Ok, thanks Tim. Useful. I’m particularly more unfamiliar with ‘French’ players than I thought. Also, Burns for instance. Thought he might have been a 1/2back! Regds.

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