Not all of the Bloods felt red was the right colour for them
The unmistakable sound of the Sky Sports hype machine whirring into top gear can mean only one thing. You'll recognise it because it sounds lot like the hype machine they use for the Premier League, but more middle class and with a fondness for wax jackets. Yes, it's the Heineken Cup or as it's known in France, €˜that competition that we'll decide how important it is to us when we see how we're doing in the domestic league' hitherto known as the Comme-ci Comme-ca Cup. As we all know, nothing says top quality European sport like a group of rugby players slowly raising their heads, looking thoughtfully off into the distance and Sky have provided just the amount of wankiness to generate a feeling somewhere between anticipation and nausea.
The Scottish teams are no longer the whipping boys of their respective pools, but their recent progress may only be enough to elevate them to the position of the competition's light spanking boys. Fittingly for a country that gave the world the Proclaimers, Glasgow and Edinburgh look very similar and may even manage the occasional success, but any long term stay in the competition looks beyond them for at least another season. Whilst we're rapidly dismissing the chances of the teams from a certain country based on a tired clichÃ© associated with that nation, then the Italian sides will disappear from the competition quicker than a teenage model in Silvio Berlusconi's sleeping quarters when his wife comes home unannounced.
A short step away from being dismissive is being vague. After a few seasons of their €˜on-again, off-again, how much are we getting paid for this again?' relationship with the H-Cup, generally the French clubs seem to be taking the continental competition more seriously than at certain points in the past. They're all pretty good, just pick one and stick a few quid on them.
Apparently that doesn't cut the mustard in a preview, so here's the more detailed version. Toulouse were impressive winners last May and begin the defence of their title with basically the same strong squad that propelled to them to glory only a few months ago. Biarritz lost out on that occasion, but they've managed to hold on to much of that panel, so they'll think they can go one better this time. Clermont are the reigning French champions so they've got their own claims and they've got a few other handy teams. One of which might win. To ruin the Francophile tone of this section, scratch the surface of last season’s French ‘dominance’ there may be some uncomfortable truths. The Gods in charge of the semi-final draw saw fit to grace the pair with home draws and the home turf advantage certainly had a positive influence on the outcome. Just how much of an influence will depend on the benefit you associate with having thousands of French folk angrily shouting at you, but it didn't hurt their chances. The main concern about backing any of the French might be the old stereotypical view about them not being too fond of anything beyond north of the Channel.
Leicester have been the dominant force in the English game for the last couple of years and although in global rugby terms holds all the value of a stock portfolio made up entirely of bank shares, they are a force to be reckoned with. They’ve got the pesky blend of young talent and experience that makes them hard to write off with a flippant gag. Falling into a neat and probably inaccurate category behind them are the likes of Saracens, Northampton and Bath. Teams that always seem to look like genuine title contenders at home, but somehow find a way to fall short when it really matters. Occasionally amazing, often atrocious, they fall into a group of teams about as balanced as a Stuart Barnes commentary.
From what we've seen in the Magners League, Munster head into the competition looking sluggish and two-dimensional which is generally a sure-fire sign that they're going to go a long way. The news that Lifeimi Mafi has been banned until some time in the next century is a blow to preparations for their tilt at a 3rd European title, but there are those who will see it as a positive. Having a player who's less likely to finish the game with a yellow card or the severed head of an opponent may not be such a bad thing in the unforgiving environment of the Heineken Cup.
Leinster's win over their southern rivals may have only papered over the cracks, but looking at paper is at least preferable to looking at cracks €“ particularly the cracks of big, hairy rugby players. With the 2009 champions gradually rebuilding after losing much of their coaching staff and some of the more cauliflower-eared portions of the pack, they could have done with a handy draw for the pools, but instead the Heineken Cup's patented Blind Man's Buff system of seeding has landed them with a real stinker. They've been landed with the French champions, Clermont Auvergne, the French moneybags of Racing Metro and the runners-up of last season's the artist formerly known as the Guinness Premiership Grand Final, Saracens. Whatever side or sides successfully navigate these vicious waters will probably be better suited to having a long rest rather than a quarter-final.
Hogging up all the €˜good draw for the pools karma' seem to be Ulster. The northern province have been developing in the last couple of years and their chances of making their first quarter-final since they won the competition in 1999 haven't been hindered by a straightforward draw in Pool 4. Biarrtiz and Bath won't rollover and have their bellies tickled, but they are beatable and home and away ties to Aironi are a great opportunity to rack up the bonus points.
Once again the Ospreys and Cardiff Blues represent Wales' best chance of claiming the trophy for the first time. The fact that the final is being held at the Millennium Stadium might be enough to think one of those names is written on the trophy, but a quick reminder that the prospect of a home final made no difference in 2008, 2006, 2002, 1997 and 1996 is probably enough to dampen the enthusiasm. As reigning Magners League champions, the Ospreys have arguably the best squad of the Welsh sides, but they've got a real battle on their hands to qualify from a tough group. If they can continue last season's welcome habit of getting away with playing with 16 men they should be ok, but otherwise it'll be difficult. The Blues may not be as strong as the side that lost out in the cruelty of the Heineken Cup penalty shoot-out a couple of years back, but they've landed in a winnable pool. Going all the way to a final is a big ask, but as long as they work on the penalty shoot-outs they've got a chance.
– HEINEKEN CUP ODDS
– HEINEKEN CUP POOLS BETTING
– TOP TRYSCORER BETTING
– TOP POINTSCORER BETTING