The Rugby’s On - Episode 9Jan 25
Brian O'Driscoll exclusive: The best players in the Heineken Champions Cup right now
Three-time European Cup winner Brian O'Driscoll picks the 10 best players in the Heineken Champions Cup right now with less than 12 months to go until the 2023 World Cup
For the first time in the competition's illustrious history, the Heineken Champions Cup is getting an upgrade with the arrival of three star-studded teams from the southern hemisphere.
The introduction of the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks means this season's competition boasts an unprecedented array of wall-to-wall talent, all jostling for the right be crowned kings of Europe.
With a smorgasboard of players to feast your eyes on this winter, we asked BT Sport pundit and three-time Heineken Champions Cup winner Brian O'Driscoll to pick his favourite players from this season's vintage.
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Eben Etzebeth - Cell C Sharks
A man mountain.
The game’s about going forward, it’s about the gladiatorial nature of confrontation, and there’s no better man for confrontation than this guy.
It’s his sheer size and the ability to give you that advantage that you need.
In the modern game, he’s a player for the ages - he would have suited playing 40 or 50 years ago but he’s such an enormous unit that he gets into any world XV at the moment.
Johnny Sexton - Leinster
He’s still at 37 pulling the strings for Leinster. The simple fact is he makes every team better.
If he gets any sort of platform at any time he can manipulate defences like nobody else. He’s timeless and he’s probably got better the older he’s got, which is such a rare trait in the modern player.
When you get into your 30s more often than not players start falling off a cliff, but it’s gone the opposite way for him. Speed was never really a factor for him so losing that hasn’t been catastrophic for him.
His point of difference was always to put others into space and keep the line really straight. If you let him run he’ll still get the job done and find an outlet.
Damian Penaud - Clermont
He’s been one of France’s best players over the last three or four seasons. It’s a new age at Clermont - they missed the boat with that old team with the likes of Morgan Parra and Aurelien Rougerie - but there’s a new crop of players coming through now and he's at centre of it.
I’ve been very excited by what Penaud’s done in a France capacity but also he’s scored some belting tries for Clermont over the past few seasons.
Julien Marchand - Toulouse
Toulouse have some amazing front rows but none better than Marchand.
His footwork, his ability to play up the line, his offloading game: he’s one of the best around in the No 2 jersey.
He’s a great scrummager and line-out operator and he’s a key man for Toulouse.
When you look at strength in depth, Toulouse have so much in Marchand and Peato Mauvaka.
Maro Itoje - Saracens
He’s an annoying player, which is a dream to play with and a nightmare to play against!
The celebrations after getting penalties and all that carry on might rub teams up the wrong way, but he doesn't detract from the fact he is a consistently excellent performer.
Saracens don’t lose very often, but even when England weren’t brilliant he still had some standout moments.
He’s a guy who continuously turns up and he’s always one of the players teams are trying to quash when they’re playing against him.
If you can keep Maro quiet it goes a long way towards stopping Saracens going forward.
Akker van der Merwe - Sale Sharks
Van der Merwe has got aspirations to play more for South Africa - he’s only got a few caps - but he’s cut out of the same cloth as Marchand: really abrasive, massively physical, scores a lot of tries of Sale’s driving maul.
He’s a guy that week after week turns up. If you’re looking at guys that have a big impact on teams, when his name’s on the No 2 jersey they’re an awful lot stronger for it.
Finn Russell - Racing
He’s so exciting. Even in a heavy defeat to Leinster I thought he had moments of magic.
He created some half opportunities but it’s very difficult when you’re on the back foot and being forced to kick.
But there’s no doubt that he’s an exceptional footballer going forward and even went and melted Caelan Doris in a tackle which you don’t often see, so he’s added physicality to his game as well.
I’ve seen him in a couple of Instagram pics of teams celebrating after games and he reminded me a bit of myself. He’s certainly not the Statue of David - he’s one of the old school ones but it works for him.
Sam Simmonds - Exeter Chiefs
He’s not the biggest guy in the world but he’s got explosiveness and scores tries.
He’s moving clubs next year, off to Montpellier, so he’ll want to sign off with a big season for Exeter.
He hasn’t always been selected for England but every time I watch him he feels like a catalyst for something positive.
Any time you have a ball carrier like him available you just have to get him as many touches as you can because he’s a dream to run off the shoulder of.
You know he’s going to make two or three yards so it’s a matter of whether he can get the ball away.
Sometimes you’re a coach's type of player and maybe Simmonds wasn’t that for Eddie Jones. But he’s been very impressive for the Chiefs for a long time now as one of their most consistent performers.
Jasper Wiese - Leicester Tigers
All of these guys are so abrasive and so physical but that’s what you need in confrontational European rugby.
Wiese’s cut out of the Sean O’Brien mould: hugely dominant on both sides of the ball, loves the collisions on the defensive side of the games.
I would’ve loved to have played with him - he’s just someone you’d want to go to war with. I’ve been a fan of his for a while.
Kurt-Lee Arendse - Vodacom Bulls
It’s always great to see the smaller, more diminutive guys who still pack a huge punch and are physical when you don’t expect them to be.
He fits into that mould. If you get on your heels he can still bounce you or if you’re on your toes he can make a show of you.
Look at the try he scored against England. He has a very clear understanding of how he wants to create space for himself.
Antoine Dupont - Toulouse
He’s a player for all stages: fast, slow, physical games.
You always need to find one or two magic moments in a game and he’s the guy to create the space or relieve pressure.
He kicks comfortably on both feet, defensively he’s very solid, corner flagging at times when needs be.
He reads the game phenomenally well and because the season he won World Player of the Year he was so much better than everyone else, when he’s a little bit below that we’re probably a little over-critical.
Yet he’s still delivering exceptional performances week in week out. He’s a massive player for Toulouse and France.