Lions rivalry and Duane Vermeulen’s European debut headline Champions Cup Week 1

The path to continental glory has been lit for Europe's rugby elite after the first wave of fixtures for this season's Champions Cup were announced on Thursday.

Teams were already aware of their opponents ahead of the December 10 start date, but the exact dates and times of the pool-stage schedule makes the Champions Cup's impending return all the more real.

Titleholders Toulouse will get their tournament up and running with a trip to Cardiff, while Premiership pace-setters Leicester will face Bordeaux in another Week 1 highlight.

Those aren't the only storylines worth watching across what promises to be an exhilarating first week back on the continent, however, as friends and foes alike collide in pursuit of a place in Europe's history books.

Biggar and Russell reignite rivalry

Finn Russell may not have started this summer's British and Irish Lions tour as the fans' fly-half of choice, but his stock soared following a major cameo in the series-deciding defeat by South Africa.

It was instead Northampton Saints leader Dan Biggar whom Warren Gatland deemed undroppable in all three Tests, but many may look back on the tour and consider the Wales No. 10 a tad too conservative for the job.

Friendly though their competition might have been, a long line of supporters might wonder whether the series outcome might have changed had Russell been Gatland's 10 of choice (and been fit for the whole tour).

The Pool A pair will have their chance to test each other's mettle in a proving ground of sorts when Racing visit Franklin's Gardens in the opening fixture of this year's tournament on the evening of December 10.

Neither player was on the books of their respective employers when these teams last met in December 2015, when Racing slammed Saints 33-3 at home before drawing 9-9 in the east Midlands.

The comrades are very much essential to the present-day success of the two clubs, however, as fans prepare for a feisty face-off between fly-half allies turned enemies.

Do you think Toulouse will successfully defend their Champions Cup trophy in 2022? Let us know in the comments section.

Clermont first in Vermeulen's sights

Few signings in world rugby completed this year carry quite as much weight as Ulster's capture of Duane Vermeulen, which is far more significant than the 110 kilograms he'll add to the pack in Belfast.

Announced shortly before the start of the inaugural United Rugby Championship season, the deal is on par with Munster signing Jean de Villiers or Leinster recruiting Brad Thorn on a short-term deal in 2012.

Vermeulen, 35, will look to back up all the recent excitement on all fronts, and Ulster will need all the help they can get when they open away to three-time European runners-up Clermont Auvergne.

The Yellow Army are stacked in all areas but boast a particularly high number of Test-level forwards, and there's no doubt Ulster will be steep underdogs at the Stade Marcel-Michelin come December 11.

Vermeulen's Week 1 involvement isn't certain after a relentless international campaign with South Africa, but the 2019 Rugby World Cup final's man of the match would be an invaluable boost for coach Dan McFarland.

Toulouse return to scene of inaugural glory

The defending champions return to the site of their genesis as a European superpower this December as Toulouse begin their quest for back-to-back titles at Cardiff's Arms Park.

The French force drew 15-15 against Cardiff in the inaugural Heineken Cup final back in 1996, emerging as its maiden winners after two penalties courtesy of Christophe Deylaud saw them win 21-18 in extra time.

Despite losing superstar Cheslin Kolbe to rivals Toulon in August, Toulouse have started the domestic campaign strongly and were the only Top 14 team to win each of their opening four games.

Unlike their encounter more than 25 years ago, Cardiff will have scant hope of beating the current kings of Europe, although special occasions such as these can often lead to quite remarkable results.

2021/22 Champions Cup – Round 1 Fixtures

Friday, December 10

Northampton Saints vs. Racing 92, 8pm

Saturday, December 11

Cardiff vs. Toulouse, 1pm

Leinster vs. Bath, 3.15pm

Bordeaux vs. Leicester Tigers, 4.15pm

Bristol Bears vs. Scarlets, 5.30pm

Clermont Auvergne vs. Ulster, 6.30pm

Exeter Chiefs vs. Montpellier, 8pm

Sunday, December 12

Connacht vs. Stade Francais, 1pm

Ospreys vs. Sale Sharks, 1pm

Wasps vs. Munster, 3.15pm

La Rochelle vs. Glasgow Warriors, 4.15pm

Castres vs. Harlequins, 6.30pm

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