Europe’s top teams in a group where (almost) every match can decide your fate. It’s like the Champions League group stages only with the notable difference of not being a forgone conclusion several months in advance. So in that respect it’s nothing like the Champions League group stages. The Heineken Cup returns for another season of crucial matches and complaining about the inherent bias of the commentators towards their respective home nations. Here’s a look at how the pools may – but probably won’t – pan out.
After failing to reach the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup for the first time since Keith Earls was in nappies, Munster will be extra anxious to prove they’ve still got the legs of Father Time and the empire isn’t crumbling. Their first choice XV is likely to be as stereotypically grizzled and combative as we’d come to expect, but with lingering injury concerns about some of the key players, do they have the depth to go all the way? Thankfully that’s a question we can conveniently sidestep until a later date because the question for here and now is ‘how will they go in the pool stages?’. Their task at hand should be pretty straightforward. Straightforward, but not necessarily easy.
Northampton are the main rivals when it comes to winning the group and although their performance in the 2nd half of the final will be remembered as one of the more famous chokes in the history of the competition, in truth it was a learning curve and the young players that make up the core of the team will have gained valuable experience to accompany their obvious ability. The two teams played out a couple of cracking games in the pool stages of the 2009/10 competition and now, like then, nicking a bonus point here and there will be crucial in smoothing the path to qualification. It’d be a big surprise if either Castres or the Scarlets are in the running for a place in the quarter-finals at the end of the pool fixtures, but they’ve still got the potential to be an irritating finger to the eye or eye area of the two favourites. The Saints have the talent, but Munster have the canny nous to claim top spot.
No matter how flamboyant and Gallic you may be, you can’t go around splashing the cash indefinitely forever and Racing Metro have had to go a bit Greek with their finances. The Parisiens reined in the spending and haven’t added a great deal to their squad since we saw them last, but given the squad was pretty good and pretty expensively assembled to begin with, they’re not in a bad position. They’ve made a mixed start to the Top 14 season and that tells us one of two things – either (a) they’re doing their best to focus on European glory or (b) they’re actually just a bit crap. Being a bit crap may not stop them winning this pool because they’ve got a couple of other teams of uncertain standards to deal with.
Cardiff Blues haven’t really recovered from the ‘rock, paper scissors’ penalty shoot-out lottery that ended their Heineken Cup campaign of 2009, but this season has the potential to be different. They’ve got a squad with the sensible older heads the clichés tell us you always need to have around and a smattering of some of the most exciting young talent in Welsh rugby. If you adopt the ‘rising tide raising all boats’ attitude to the Heineken Cup, Welsh rugby seems to be on the up and the Blues should be well placed to benefit. That said, we’ve used that logic a few times in the past and it hasn’t worked out too well. The constant enigma that is London Irish complete the trio of teams with genuine aspirations of reaching the knockout stage (apologies to the plucky tryers of Edinburgh). They’ve done a lot of wheeling and dealing since last season so it’s hard to know what to expect from them. The Aviva Premiership table tells us they’re doing well enough, but it also tells us Leicester are worse than Exeter, so maybe we shouldn’t pay too much attention to it especially since a lot of internationals have been in New Zealand disappointing their countries to various extents. If I’ve to make a pointless prediction no-one’s going to listen to anyway, I’d go for the Blues because I can see Racing live up to the billing of the bad-travelling French team and not winning a game away from home.
Up until a few days ago, all looked rosy in the garden of the defending champions. Their fiercest rivals had been dispatched the minimum of fuss, their returning World Cup stars were easing their way back into top form and in their absence, the team had been going along nicely. Since then however a dark sling-shaped cloud has appeared on the horizon as the most open secret in rugby was confirmed – Brian O’Driscoll has been playing with an injury for months – if not years – and needs surgery. He’s expected to be out for about 6 months, but most of the reports relating to the story included a line along the lines of ‘he is expected to be fit for the quarter-finals in April’ – an addition with the whiff of arrogance which pretty much tells us all we need to know about the draw the Blues have been handed. It’s pretty easy and they’re expected to progress as pool winners.
O’Driscoll’s absence can’t be dismissed too lightly. Even if his legs don’t have the Popeye-esque burst of power they once did and he’s been playing with one arm for much of the time, BOD still provides enough relentless tackling and leading by example to be an inspiration to the rest of the team and his absence will be felt. Whoever slips into his shirt for the duration of his absence may well be able to match up to him technically, but the loss of his leadership will be felt. If injuries do ever come at a good time however, this would count as one of them.
Bath are considered the greatest danger to Leinster’s progress. They made a decent fist of things last season, but after much chopping and changing over the summer, they’re at an uncertain ebb. They’ve lost some key players, but they’ve got their hands on some interesting ones. The captures of youthful Springbok, Francis Louw and highly-rated league convert, Kyle Eastmond could prove to be inspired and added to the efforts of the All Blacks’ unlikely World Cup Final hero, Stephen Donald, there is reason for optimism in the longer term. This Heineken Cup campaign may come a little too soon and they will need to do something special to upset the odds. The bottom line is Montpellier finished second in last season’s Top 14 and such a result is worthy of respect, but in truth they scraped into the playoffs with a middling record and booked their place in the final with gutsy single point victories in the quarter and semi-finals. There’s nothing wrong with battling qualities, but they’ll need more by way of flair to be a genuine contender in the pool. Glasgow will again struggle to get into the qualification picture, but with two of Scotland’s infamous ‘killer B’s’ in their ranks and a handful of other Scottish internationals, they’ll be a nuisance. Granted the label of ‘Scottish international’ doesn’t carry same connotations of talent and ability it once did, but Glasgow will be a thorn in the side, particularly when they’re at home. Leinster should progress and have on eye on booking a home quarter-final.
The odds for this group looks say it’s a toss-up between Leicester and Clermont. That sentence may appear overly dismissive of Ulster and it undoubtedly is, but the suspicion is they may just come up short. ‘Ulster in Ravenhill’ is a prospect about as enticing as ‘a night out with The Only Way Is Essex‘ crew to visitors to Belfast and there’s every chance the Ulstermen will claim three home wins and added to a presumptuous win in Italy, that would out them there or thereabouts in the race for qualification. The problem however is that although Ulster are capable of putting it up to the big boys, too often it’s in the cause of an admirable defeat and they really can’t afford any of those in front of their own supporters if they want to progress.
Last season was a rare trophyless one for Leicester, but they still topped the Aviva Premiership table and ran Leinster close away from home in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup. It wasn’t as successful as they’ve become accustomed to, but equally it was hardly a meltdown. They’ve held on to the bulk of their star players, brought in a couple of useful additions and generally look well placed as they go in search of a 3rd Heineken Cup. Plus, they’ve made their customary poor start to the domestic season which is generally a sure-fire sign that they’re on track for glory later in the season. Clermont Auvergne weren’t a bad side to begin with, but over the summer they’ve brought in some talent that can only improve them. All Black, Sitiveni Sivivatu is the most exciting of the arrivals, but there’s reason to think David Skrela, Lee Byrne, Nathan Hines and Regan King will make them a better outfit.
Even at this stage it looks like try bonus points and losing bonus points will have a big bearing on the final standings. With Aironi in the mix, the big boys will be eyeing up a couple of pummellings and whoever finishes second should be able to cobble together enough points for a place in the quarters as a runner-up. The lazy prediction is Clermont to top the pool with the Tigers snapping at their French backsides.
Saracens’ development in recent seasons was confirmed with the capture of the first Premiership title in the club’s history and not much that’s happened since then has dented the belief they can build on that success. They’ve started the domestic season like team intent on making progress and bringing World Cup winning Springbok captain, John Smit into the fold can only help their European challenge. On the flipside, Biarritz have made a woeful start to the season and currently prop up the French Top 14. A certain amount of that can be put down to not having their stars available due to the World Cup, but a certain amount of is also down to the fact they’re not as strong as they were when reaching the 2010 final. They’ve still got enough good players to go be a substantial obstacle to everyone else in the group and they’ve got that enigmatic flair associated with French rugby that means they can never be dismissed flippantly.
The theory regarding the Ospreys is their best chance of European success came a couple of years ago when their combination of players looked to have the right combination of experience and ability and they’ve missed the boat with that cycle of players. Over the summer, they lost enough talent to make a top class sevens team and that will be hard to replace. It’s not all doom and gloom because they still retain the bones of a good team and a production line of talent that may one day make up for those substantial losses. They’ll eventually recover, but not in time for the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. The mildly patronising summation that they’ll be ‘a handful’ is about as good as it gets for them on this occasion. Treviso complete the quartet and will bloody a few noses both in the literal and metaphorical sense, but won’t get in the frame for the quarters. After watching how the largely god-awful French almost won the World Cup, I’m inclined to think the Basques can defy recent abject form to take top spot in this pool.
You’d pretty much expect Toulouse to have Pool B sewn up, even allowing for the excellent recent form of Clowns RFC. Ill-discipline and Johnny Sexton’s unerring boot cost them when they pushed the eventual winners close away from home in last year’s semi-final, so taking that logic to possibly dangerous conclusions, they weren’t far off being the best team in the competition. Plus the opening line of their Wikipedia entry describes them as ‘one of the finest rugby clubs in Europe’ which is enough of an irrefutable source for me. They’ve lost a couple of big name players since last season, but they’ve also brought in a few younger models who you’d fancy to slot nicely into the team. They may in fact have improved the squad.
Harlequins are blazing a trail at the top of the Aviva Premiership, but as eluded to previously, taking too much from the internationals-less part of the season is dangerous. Danny Care missed out on the fun, frolics and dwarf-tossing of New Zealand and will be extra fresh for the competition. He’s good enough that his form and freshness could swing a couple of tight games in their favour. Gloucester will pose some problems for everyone, but they wouldn’t seem to be on the same level as the leading two. With Connacht in the pool, you would expect a few bonus points to be had, so whoever finishes who as runner-up should be close to landing one of the best runners-up slots. Toulouse through as winners, but Harlequins will push them close.