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It’s Definitely Not The Heineken Cup. No, Really. Really It’s Not

Same sponsor, many of the same teams. So what has changed with the European Champions Cup? The lack of genuine outsiders, says our blogger

by Andy McGeady | October 17, 2014

Brian: “Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?”

Reg: “Fuck off! ‘Judean People’s Front’…  We’re the People’s Front of Judea! ‘Judean People’s Front’…

Francis: “Wankers.”

Life of Brian (1979)

This Star Remains Constant – so goes the slogan in Heineken’s new ad for the European Rugby Champions Cup (sponsored by Heineken) the shiny new and absolutely completely different replacement for the Heineken Cup.

Same sponsor, many of the same teams. And no change in the pre-tournament favourites where Toulon lead the way once again but this time at a short 5/2, down from the 7/2 they commanded before the 13/14 campaign. Immediately behind are Clermont, Saracens, Leinster and a new boy: Northampton, 20/1 outsiders for 2013/14 but now second favourites at 6/1. (outright odds here)

  • 5/2 Toulon
  • 6/1 Northampton
  • 8/1 Clermont, Sarries, Leinster
  • 16/1 Toulouse
  • 18/1 Racing
  • 20/1 Munster, Ulster
  • 25/1 Montpellier, Bath, Leicester
  • 66/1 Quins
  • 75/1 Glasgow
  • 90/1 Wasps
  • 100/1 Ospreys
  • 275/1 Sale, Castres
  • 325/1 Scarlets
  • 1000/1 Treviso

Brian O'Driscoll

According to the Paddy Power machine the early wagers on tournament winners are going heavily on Munster (20/1) with Leinster (8/1) and Ulster (20/1) following. At that price if they were to win it all Munster would be the biggest loser in the Paddy Power book. Leinster at 8/1, considering their injury difficulties and loss of the legend that was Brian O’Driscoll (above), seem short. Very short.

Pre-tournament odds of the last five Heineken Cup champions:

  • 2014: Toulon (7/2)
  • 2013: Toulon (17/2)
  • 2012: Leinster (9/2)
  • 2011: Leinster (12/1)
  • 2010: Toulouse (7/1)

One thing that is certainly different is the number of teams in the competition. Mathematics will always get you in the end and no matter how you dress things up 20 is always fewer than 24.

The biggest impact on the pools will be the lack of genuine outsiders. This season it’s Treviso that will be looked upon by pool-mates Northampton, Racing and Ospreys as lambs to the slaughter. Is having a minnow upon which to feast necessarily a good harbinger of a tournament-winning campaign?

In previous Heineken Cups between two and five pools per season have had at least one and possibly two minnows* in their group.

*Minnow = Italian side and/or a team finishing lower than seventh in the Pro12. This is a quick and dirty definition that was first scribbled down, quite literally, on a Post-It.

In the last 10 Heineken Cup seasons no champion has emerged from the nine pools with two minnows. Biarritz and Saracens, runners up in 2005/06 and 2013/14 respectively, came closest.

Of the 26 “Soft Pools” containing just one minnow, four teams have come through to win the title with five finishing as a runner up.

Of the 25 remaining “Hard Pools” there have emerged six tournament winners and three runners up.

Plug them together and it’s more obvious.

  • 1 or 2 Minnows: 35 pools, 4 winners, 7 runners up
  • 0 Minnows: 25 pools – 6 winners, 3 runners up

One the surface, it might look like one reversed result on each side would make it five winners apiece. Small sample size and all that.

Consider this, however: one must go back to the 2004/05 campaign to see a team from an “inferior” pool beat a team from a tougher pool in the final; Toulouse (minnow pool) beat Stade Francais (Hard Pool). Every other winner since has emerged from a pool of at least the same difficulty.

Rugby’s European Cup has not traditionally rewarded outsider winners, no matter how soft a pool, with surprise outfits like Edinburgh and their improbable 2011/12 run weeded out before the final. This competition has always been about hard games and tough rugby. When considering the likelihood of a champion the decreased number of teams won’t change that in the slightest.

Selected Games:

Saturday: Saracens (-5) v Clermont (15.15, BT Sport 1)

On paper, a belter. First in France plays second in England. The runners up from the last two finals. And Clermont out for revenge after last season’s 46-6 humiliation in the semi final at Twickenham. Saracens’ fondness for putting boot to ball up against Clermont’s passing, offloading game. New name be damned – the European Cup is still the great unachieved goal of Clermont rugby. Expect them to finish within those five points.

Saturday: Leicester (-3) v Ulster (19.45, BT Sport 1)

A heaving Welford Road will not be a new environment to Ulster. They’re used to being thrown together with the Tigers and last season achieved a memorable Leicester double. Their inspirational Springbok Ruan Pienaar might be missing but that’s probably balanced by the hospital ward that has been the Tigers’ dressing room. Eighth in the Premiership giving points to the Pro12’s third place team? Ulster, please.

Sunday: Leinster (-13) v Wasps (17.15, BT Sport 1)

Wasps’ three league wins so far might well have been at home but their three defeats on their travels were to Heineken Cup sides Saracens, Harlequins and Sale by an average margin of just six points (and none by more than nine). Leinster should win, but Wasps at +13 is there for the taking. And if you said you’d see value in Coventry’s Wandering Wasps for the outright win at 5/1, I couldn’t argue too strongly.

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