Seven months on from Toulouse's triumph at Twickenham, the Heineken Champions Cup returns this weekend as the best teams in the northern hemisphere prepare to do battle in the race to be crowned kings of Europe.

Ahead of what is set to be another enthralling campaign, we rank the 24 teams vying to take their place at next year's final in Marseille.


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1. Toulouse

Story of last season

Toulouse became the most successful team in the history of the competition last season, beating La Rochelle to complete a league and European Cup double.

The triumph at Twickenham took Toulouse's Heineken Cup trophy haul to five, one clear of Leinster.

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Hopes for this season

Pre-competition favourites Toulouse will be out to create more history by defending their crown for the first time.

The Top 14 leaders begin their defence on December 11 against Cardiff at Arms Park and are once again the team to beat this term.


Most important player: Antoine Dupont

Widely expected to be named World Rugby Player of the Year, Dupont is France and Toulouse's little general.

The scrum-half was majestic in last season's triumph over La Rochelle and picked up from where he left off with a man of the match display in France's victory over the All Blacks.

Click here for Toulouse Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

2. Leinster

Story of last season

Leinster produced one of the displays of last season to upset defending champions Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park in the quarter-finals.

But their bid for a record-breaking fifth European Cup was ended by Ronan O'Gara's La Rochelle in the last four.


Hopes for this season

Leo Cullen's Leinster will be have their sights set on a record-equalling fifth Heineken Cup.

Their first European success came in 2009, when they beat Leicester Tigers 19-16 at Cardiff.

That was followed by back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012 after respective victories against Northampton and Ulster Rugby.

Their last European crown came back in 2018, in a 15-12 win over Racing 92. 


Most important player: Jamison Gibson-Park

Leinster will again look to the vast experience of current captain Johnny Sexton, the fourth highest European Cup points-scorer with 699, although he may face fresh competition for the 10 jersey from young Harry Byrne.

Sexton's half-back partner Jamison Gibson-Park played a pivotal role in Ireland's shock victory over the All Blacks in the Autumn and the scrum-half will set the tempo in attack for Leinster in Europe.

Click here for Leinster Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

3. Exeter Chiefs

Story of last season

Having broken their European hoodoo in 2020, Exeter's defence of their crown ended in the last eight at home to four-time winners Leinster. 

The Devonians were many people's tips to complete the European and Premiership double-double but the Chiefs would go on to beaten by Harlequins in a thrilling final at Twickenham.


Hopes for this season

Exeter will be determined to avenge last year's quarter-final heartbreak with a second European crown very much a realistic target.

The Chiefs  face off against Glasgow Warriors and Montpellier in the pool stage and will be quietly confident of reaching the knockout stage without any slip ups.


Most important player: Sam Simmonds

The dynamic number eight was named European Player of the Year in 2020 and will be looking to replicate that form this season.

The try-scoring sensation is finally getting the international recognition his exploits deserve with appearances for the British & Irish Lions and England in recent months.

Click here for Exeter Chiefs Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

4. La Rochelle

Story of last season

La Rochelle produced a string of outstanding performances to reach their first ever Heineken Cup final.

Victories over Premiership duo Gloucester and Sale Sharks in the early knockout stages set up a phenomenal 32-23 win over four-time European champions Leinster Rugby in the semi-finals. 

However, they fell to a gut-wrenching 22-17 defeat to Toulouse in the final at Twickenham Stadium.


Hopes for this season

La Rochelle supremo Ronan O'Gara will be hoping his side can go one better after announcing themselves on the European stage last season. 

The two-time European Cup winner with Munster has drawn plaudits for his coaching style but the Irishman will be desperate for silverware after suffering double final heartbreak in the Champions Cup and Top 14 competitions.

La Rochelle will take on Glasgow Warriors and Bath Rugby in Pool A of the Heineken Champions Cup. The French side faced Glasgow twice in the pool stage of the 2019/20 competition, falling to a 27-24 defeat at home before claiming a 12-7 victory in Scotland.


Most important player: Gregory Alldritt

Another swashbuckling back-rower ready to take the Heineken Cup by storm. 

Captain of France's new-look side that swept aside the All Blacks in the summer, Alldritt is fast-becoming one of the most influential players on the planet and is likely to lead his nation at their home World Cup in 2023.

Click here for La Rochelle Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

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5. Harlequins

Story of last season

Harlequins returned to club rugby's top table as Premiership champions after failing to make the knockout stages in Europe.

Paul Gustard's departure as head coach proved to galvanise the squad as the Londonders won their first league title since 2012.

Inspired by a core of talented young English players, Quins upset the odds to beat table-topping Bristol in the play-off semi-finals before denying Exeter a third league crown in a thrilling final at Twickenham.


Hopes for this season

All eyes will be on Tabai Matson's side as they look to translate their domestic success onto the European stage.

Quins open up their campaign away at Top 14 outfit Castres followed by games against Cardiff home and away before welcoming their French opponents to The Stoop.


Most important player: Marcus Smith

It's been a whirlwind 12 months for the rookie fly-half and much will be expected of the English rugby's next big thing as Quins face off against the best clubs in the northern hemisphere.

If Smith can maintain his thirst for flair and metronomic efficiency with the boot, Quins could mount a serious challenge on Europe's elite.

Click here for Harlequins Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

6. Racing 92

Story of last season

Having finished as runners-up in 2020, the Parisians trounced Edinburgh 56-3 in the last 16 to set up an all-French quarter-final with Bordeuax-Begles.

Racing's hopes of reaching back-to-back finals were dashed as Bordeaux fly-half Matthieu Jalibert kicked all 24 points, including a dramatic late penalty to secure victory.


Hopes for this season

Racing will be out to end their European Cup hoodoo after losing three finals.

The Top 14 club went down 21-9 to Saracens in the 2016 decider, 15-12 to Leinster Rugby two years later and 31-27 to Exeter Chiefs last year.


Most important player: Gael Fickou

Composed, powerful and skillful, the Racing centre is in the form of his life having helped France record their first victory over New Zealand since 2009.

It’s hard to believe Fickou is just 27-years-old, having been a feature of French rugby for so long, but the centre shows no signs of slowing down as another European campaign looms.

Click here for Racing 92 Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

7. Leicester Tigers

Story of last season

Leicester Tigers missed out on a first European trophy in 19 years as Montpellier edged a feisty Challenge Cup final at Twickenham.

In the league, director of rugby Steve Borthwick's fingerprints were plain to see as the Tigers secured a sixth-placed finish.


Hopes for this season

Leicester return to Heineken Cup action as the only undefeated team left in Europe's three leagues.

Nine wins from their opening nine games in the Premiership has given fans fresh hope that the Tigers can challenge for a first European Cup since 2002.


Most important player: George Ford

Arguably the most in-form fly-half in Europe right now.

Jettisoned by Eddie Jones and England, Ford has been the conductor-in-chief of Leicester's remarkable start to the season.

With a move to Sale Sharks already agreed, the fly-half will be desperate to leave Leicester on a high by ending the club's long wait for silverware.

Click here for Leicester Tigers Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

8. Munster

Story of last season

Johann van Graan’s side won both of their Pool B games last season, beating Harlequins 21-7 at home and before an impressive win at Clermont on the road.

But their European dream was ended in the round of 16 by eventual winners Toulouse during a thrilling contest at Thomond Park.


Hopes for this season

The two-time winners are targeting a third European crown, although their preparations have been disrupted by a Covid outbreak.

Munster won their first European Cup in 2006, beating Biarritz Olympique 23-19 in the Cardiff final, with Ronan O’Gara kicking 13 points. 

The competition’s leading points-scorer then tallied 11 points two years later in the same stadium as Munster lifted the trophy for a second time, this time beating Toulouse 16-13.  


Most important player: Damian de Allende 

The South African World Cup winner is one of the most complete centres on the planet and adds extra steel to a side that already contains warriors like Peter O'Mahony and Tadhg Beirne.

Click here for Munster Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

9. Clermont

Story of last season

It was a rollercoaster campaign for Clermont last season.

After picking up one win and one defeat in the pool stage, Japan winger Kotaro Matsushima went over for an 82nd-minute try to seal a dramatic 27-25 away win over Wasps in the last 16.

But Clermont’s tournament ended in the quarter-finals, as they lost at home to eventual winners Toulouse 21-12.


Hopes for this season

European rugby's bridesmaids Clermont will be out to end their Heineken Cup final hoodoo when they begin their campaign at home to Ulster.

The first of Clermont’s three unsuccessful final appearances came in 2013, when they were beaten 16-15 by a Jonny Wilkinson-inspired Toulon.

After exiting at the semi-final stage the following year, they reached the showpiece game for a second time in 2015, but again lost to Toulon.

They reached their third final in 2017, only to succumb 28-17 to Saracens in what was the Premiership side's second European crown.


Most important player: Damian Penaud

Another member of France's All-Black conquering side.

The flying winger crossed the whitewash three times last campaign, taking his European haul to 11 tries in 22 games. 

Click here for Clermont Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

10. Sale Sharks

Story of last season

Sale reached the last 16 of the competition despite losing both of their pool games. 

The Sharks breezed past Scarlets to reach the quarter-finals before coming unstuck against eventual finalists La Rochelle.


Hopes for this season

Heineken Cup action will provide a welcome distraction with Sale languishing in 11th place in the Premiership table.

The Salford outfit go up against United Rugby Championship side Ospreys and Top 14 giants in Pool A, playing both sides home and away with a place in the last 16 at stake.

Director of rugby Alex Sanderson was part of the coaching staff at Saracens as they conquered Europe three times in four years and Sale fans will be hoping he can repeat that success in the North West.


Most important player: Tom Curry

International duties mean the back-rower is often missing for Sale's domestic campaign, but Curry is ready to take centre stage for his club in Europe after a morale-boosting Autumn with England.

Click here for Sale Sharks Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

11. Ulster

Story of last season

The Irish province bowed out in the pool stages after losing 29-22 at home to eventual winners Toulouse before George Barton came off the bench to score an 85th-minute try for Gloucester to dump Ulster out.


Hopes for this season

Drawn in Pool A, Ulster face off against Clermont and Northampton Saints with dreams of a second European crown. 

With internationals like Duane Vermeulen, Iain Henderson, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy and Jacob Stockdale in their ranks, a first Heineken Cup win since 1999 is not beyond the realms of possibility.


Most important player: Duane Vermeulen

The South African's signing was a real statement from a club that have slipped behind Leinster and Munster in recent years.

In 2019, Vermeulen was named player of the match as South Africa stormed their way to World Cup victory, lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy by beating England.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland said: "Duane is clearly a world class player who, as the current world champions' starting number eight, is set to bring depth and experience to our really talented group of back-rowers.

Click here for Ulster Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

12. Bordeaux-Begles

Story of last season

Last season's semi-final appearance was Bordeaux's best showing in the tournament since their Heineken Cup debut back in 1995.

Victories over Northampton and the Dragons saw Bordeaux progress to the knockout stage, before they beat Bristol Bears in the last 16 to exact revenge for their 2020 Challenge Cup semi-final heartbreak.

A 24-21 victory over Racing kept them on course for a maiden European Cup, before their dream was ended by eventual winners Toulouse.


Hopes for this season

Flying high in the Top 14, two points clear of champions Toulouse at the top of the table, Bordeaux begin their campaign as one of the competition's form sides with designs on going one better this season.

The French league leaders kick off their Pool B campaign at home to Leicester Tigers on December 11 before visiting Scarlets in round two on December 19. 

They then host the United Rugby Championship outfit on January 16 before travelling to Leicester for their final pool stage game on January 22.


Most important player: Matthieu Jalibert

Along with Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont, Jalibert is one of a number of talented young French players helping to put their country back on the map.

As versatile as he is gifted, the 23-year-old can play in the centres or at full-back and has one of the most reliable boots in the world.

Click here for Bordeaux-Begles Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

13. Montpellier

Story of last season

Montpellier will be bidding to follow up last season’s EPCR Challenge Cup triumph with success in European club rugby’s elite competition.

Having dropped into the Challenge Cup following defeats to Wasps and Leinster, Montpellier never looked back, beating Benetton, Glasgow and Bath to set up a final with Leicester Tigers.

Philippe Saint-Andre's men ensured it was all a clean-sweep for France in Europe last season as Handre Pollard kicked Montpellier to glory at Twickenham.


Hopes for this season

Montpellier face the toughest of pool-stage assignments after being drawn to face four-time winners Leinster and 2020 champions Exeter Chiefs in Pool A.


Most important player: Handre Pollard

An honourable mention goes to their South African-born second row powerhouse Paul Willemse, but Pollard is the man that makes this team tick. 

Ever-reliable from the kicking tee and pin-point accurate out of hand, South Africa's World Cup-winning fly-half as the quality to decide any game.


Click here for Montpellier Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

14. Northampton Saints

Story of last season

Northampton bowed out of the competition in the pool stage following back-to-back defeats to Bordeaux and Leinster.

The Saints also missed out on the Premiership play-offs after finishing fifth, 14 points behind eventual champions Harlequins.


Hopes for this season

Six victories from their opening nine games in domestic competition means Northampton are sitting pretty in third in the Premiership table.

The East Midlanders, who won the Heineken Cup back in 2000, face off against Racing and Ulster in this season's pool stage.


Most important player: Courtney Lawes

Led from the front with his tireless work rate in England's Autumn Nations Cup victories over Tonga, Australia and South Africa - in the form of his life with Saints flying high in the league.

His size and power will be crucial in pool-stage showdowns with Ulster and Racing.

Click here for Northampton Saints Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

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15. Stade Francais

Story of last season

Last season saw the Parisian's exit the ECPR Challenge Cup at the pool stage following a disappointing campaign including a 44-20 defeat at home to Benetton Rugby.


Hopes for this season

This is Stade Français' return to Europe’s elite club rugby competition for the first time since 2015.

Gonzalo Quesada is in his second spell in charge of Stade Français, having first been in the hot seat there between 2013 and 2017, when he guided the Parisian club to the Top 14 title in 2015 and Challenge Cup glory in 2017

Quesada will be hoping to restore the club to the glory days of the early 2000s when they twice lost in the final, in 2001 and 2005. 


Most important player: Ngani Laumape

The 28-year-old centre took up a three-year deal with the Paris club after an ‘underwhelming’ offer from New Zealand rugby.

The bull-dozzing All Black will be a must-watch when he makes his Heineken Cup debut later this month.

Click here for Stade Francais Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

16. Wasps

Story of last season

Victories over Dragons followed by a 33-14 success at home to Montpellier saw Wasps advance to the knockout stage of the Heineken Champions Cup, raising hopes of a third European crown.

But their quest for a first final since 2004 came to an end in the last 16 as a late Kotaro Matsushima try helped Clermont to a 27-25 win at the Coventry Building Society Arena.


Hopes for this season

Injury-ravaged Wasps have been handed a nightmare draw with pool clashes against two-time winners Munster and defending champions Toulouse in store.

Wasps' slim hopes of reaching the knockout stage will hinge on how quickly star players Jack Willis, Joe Launchbury and Paolo Odogwu return.


Most important player: Alfie Barbeary

The 23-year-old is back in action after a long injury lay off and his return has got Wasps fans licking their lips!

The hooker-turned-back rower is widely regarded as one of the most exciting young talents in England and has already ear-marked by Eddie Jones for the 2023 World Cup in France.

Click here for Wasps Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

17. Bristol Bears

Story of last season

2020/21 Premiership pacesetters suffered knockout heartbreak on both fronts last season.

Their Heineken Cup campaign came to an end at the hands of Top 14 leaders Bordeaux before the Bears suffered a shock home defeat to eventual champions Quins in the semi-finals of the league.


Hopes for this season

Bristol's first piece of European silverware was supposed to be the springboard to bigger and better things for the West Country club, but the Bears appear to still be in hibernation mode.

Six defeats from nine in the Premiership sees Pat Lam's side 12th in the domestic standings as they prepare for European encounters with Scarlets and Stade Francais.

If Semi Radrada can return to his form of last season, the Bears will fancy their chances at reaching the last 16.


Most important player: Callum Sheedy

The Wales fly-half was instrumental in Bristol's journey to the 2020 Challenge Cup final and the Bears need their academy graduate to rediscover the form that earned him an international call up 12 months ago.

Click here for Montpellier Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

18. Castres

Story of last season

It was a disappointing campaign for the Top 14 outfit in  the Challenge Cup, as they suffered a pair of defeats in the preliminary stage.

They opened the competition with a 39-15 reverse at Welsh region Ospreys before suffering a 26-17 home defeat to English club Newcastle Falcons that put pay to their hopes of progressing.


Hopes for this season

Castres return to the Heineken Cup for the first time since 2018 in what will be their 16th campaign in Europe's premier competition.

The Frenchman face two daunting assignments in their bid to reach the knockout stage for only the second time, with pool stage clashes against Harlequins and Munster.


Most important player: Ben Botica

New Zealander Ben Botica has been back to his playmaking best in the Castres backline so far this season and he the burden of creativity will once again fall on his shoulders.

Click here for Castres Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

19. Scarlets

Story of last season

A 23-19 win at Bath was enough to see Scarlets advance from the pool stage amid coronavirus disruption.

Their European campaign would come to an end in the round of 16 as they fell to a heavy defeat at home to Sale Sharks.


Hopes for this season

Scarlet's aspirations of going deep in Europe hang by a thread after they were handed a 28-0 defeat for forfeiting their opening weekend clash with Bristol Bears, citing player welfare concerns and an inability to field a squad.

The Scarlets currently have 32 players in quarantine at a Belfast hotel after flying home last week from UK Government red-listed South Africa, where they had been due to play two United Rugby Championship fixtures.


Most important player: Liam Williams

The Wales full-back is one of the most experienced internationals on the scene and his 2020 Heineken Cup triumph with Saracens gives him European club pedigree to boot.

There isn't a more reliable player under the high ball than the man they call 'Sanjay'.

Click here for Scarlets Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

20. Ospreys

Story of last season

Ospreys reached the round of 16 in last season’s EPCR Challenge Cup, where they were beaten by Newcastle Falcons. The Welsh region had taken an early lead thanks to two tries from Kieran Williams and Dan Evans in three first-half minutes.

However, Newcastle battled back from a 14-point deficit and entered the final eight on the back of 21 unanswered points, either side of the interval, to win 28-24 at the Stadium. 


Hopes for this season

The Swansea-based club have reached the quarter finals on three separate occasions, but their last appearance in the last eight came over 11 years ago. 

Their hopes of reaching the last four for the first time in the club's history were dealt a devastating blow by the news that talismanic lock Alun Wyn Jones will miss his side’s opening Heineken Champions Cup games as he requires surgery on a shoulder injury.

The British and Irish Lions captain was forced off during Wales’ defeat to New Zealand in the Autumn and Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has revealed that the 36-year-old will be sidelined for “a number of months”.


Most important player: Gareth Anscombe

With Jones likely to be sidelined for the duration of the pool stages, Wales fly-half Gareth Anscombe will be tasked with leading his side against Sale and Racing.

The Kiwi-born stand off has spent nearly two years recovering from knee ligament damage sustained in the build up to the 2019 World Cup and will be chomping at the bit to return to the European stage.


Click here for Ospreys Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

21. Cardiff

Story of last season

Competing in the EPCR Challenge Cup, Cardiff advanced to the knockout stage following a 33-20 victory at Newcastle Falcons, with other pool games disrupted by coronavirus.

Their European campaign came to an abrupt end in the last 16 as they lost 41-35 at London Irish in a thrilling game that saw the hosts cross three times in the final 10 minutes.


Hopes for this season

Cardiff caretaker boss Gruff Rees will be hoping his makeshift squad can galvanise Covid-hit Cardiff against Heineken Champions Cup holders Toulouse this weekend.

Rees is overseeing a patched-up squad with 32 players in quarantine in London or South Africa.

Cardiff travel to Harlequins a week later, before hosting the English side on January 14.

A trip to Toulouse on January 22 rounds off their pool stage.


Most important player: Tomos Williams

With no fewer than 32 players in Covid quarantine and unavailable for selection this weekend, Wales scrum-half Williams takes on fresh importance as Cardiff's lynchpin in attack.

Click here for Cardiff Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

22. Glasgow Warriors

Story of last season

2020 winners Exeter Chiefs handed Glasgow a resounding 42-0 defeat in their opening game and with coronavirus disruption meaning the encounter was their only pool stage action, they dropped into the Challenge Cup.

That campaign lasted just one game, as they went down 26-21 at eventual winners Montpellier in the last 16.


Hopes for this season

The Warriors have twice reached the last eight of the competition and clinching a knockout berth this season would be a real achievement given the calibre of their pool opponents.

The United Rugby Championship outfit face home and away games against last season’s finalists, La Rochelle and 2020 winners Exeter Chiefs.


Most important player: Ali Price

Price's consistency and high-class performances saw him earn a well-deserved selection in the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour.

The 28-year-old is in the form of his life, as his involvement in all three Lions Tests in the summer proved.

The Scotland No 9’s return after the international window helped Glasgow see off Dragons in the league and he will be invaluable if the Scottish side are to upset Exeter and La Rochelle.

Click here for Glasgow Warriors Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

23. Connacht

Story of last season

Defeat at Racing 92 and a home loss to Bristol Bears saw Connacht drop into the Challenge Cup last season.

They visited Leicester Tigers, who they meet again in the Heineken Cup this season, in the round of 16, scoring four tries against the eventual finalists before ultimately going down 48-32.


Hopes for this season

Connacht's Heineken Cup record suggests the province are out of their depth at Europe’s top table, with their famous victory at Toulouse now eight years ago and Zebre the only away successes since. 

Fast forward eight years, with Jack Carty pulling the strings at fly-half and British & Irish Lion Bundee Aki improving year on year, Connacht have the moving parts to go far in any competition allied to their Galway stronghold at the Sportsground.

Still, with games against in-form Leicester and Stade Francais to come, a place in the knockout stage may well be beyind them.


Most important player: Bundee Aki

Connacht's New Zealand-born powerhouse is the heartbeat of the side in attack and defence. 

The Ireland centre missed his side's most recent trip to Leinster but he should be fit and raring to go when Connacht kick off their Pool B campaign at home to Stade Français Paris on December 12.

Click here for Connacht Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22

24. Bath

Story of last season

A pulsating encounter with Scarlets on the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup ended in a 23-19 loss and, with remaining fixtures disrupted by coronavirus, they dropped into the Challenge Cup. 

Wins at Zebre Parma  and at home to Premiership rivals London Irish saw them reach the semi-finals, where they were beaten by eventual winners Montpellier.


Hopes for this season

A lot has changed since Bath were crowned champions of Europe back in 1998.

Fast forward 23 years and the famous West Country club are in the midst of their worst start to a league season in its long and illustrious history. 

Nine defeats from their opening nine games sees Bath propping up the rest of the table with Leinster and last season's finalists La Rochelle to look forward to.


Most important player: Sam Underhill

A man who would tackle his own mother if it meant securing a turnover for his side.

Underhill has been sorely missed whilst away on England duty and the flanker's importance was emphasised in Bath's narrow defeat to Exeter a fortnight ago as the West Country giants came within minutes of snapping their losing streak.

Click here for Bath Heineken Cup fixtures 2021/22