Castres often go under the radar in a division full of free spenders, but after making it all the way to the Top 14 final last season, could be seen as one of the dark horses for the Heineken Cup this year. Castres have a very capable squad, but lack the talent and/or depth at certain key positions, that would otherwise move them amongst the favourites for the competition. The summer signing of Richie Gray, who will join international teammate Max Exans at the club, is a good addition to the squad, and bolsters a highly underrated pack. The Castres backs are a hardworking and earnest group, but if the French side is to have success, they will need stellar performances from their best unit, the back row. Boasting, amongst others, the talents of Antoine Claassen and Pedrie Wannenburg, Castres’ back row can go toe-to-toe with any side in the Heineken, and will most likely be vital to their chances of success.
Last Season: Group Stage (not even close to qualifying, finishing below Ulster and Northampton).
Prediction: given the strength of both Leinster and Northampton’s squads, Castres could struggle both at home and away against them, and may have to settle for a showdown with Ospreys for the third spot in the pool.
Any team who is willing to kick the ball away against Leinster this year needs to be beware. The Irish province’s back three will likely consist of Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, and new arrival Zane Kirchner, and the trio should compose one of the most dangerous counter-attacking threats in the Northern Hemisphere. Jonathan Sexton’s departure is a significant loss for Leinster, and although Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth are suitable replacements, neither player has the array of skills that Sexton brought to the side. This 2013-14 campaign is almost certainly Brian O’Driscoll’s last ride, and potentially also Leo Cullen’s, another Leinster stalwart, and there could be no more fitting accolade for these two, than bowing out at the summit of club rugby’s most prestigious competition.
Last Season: Group Stage (top placed side to not make it to the knockout rounds, won the Amlin).
Prediction: bearing in mind experience, balance of the squad, and inspirational leadership from Messrs O’Driscoll and Cullen, Leinster should be favourites to top this pool. Their biggest threat comes from Northampton, but if they play to their potential, they should be able secure qualification to the next round.
Rarely a week has gone by when Northampton’s big summer signings of Alex Corbisiero, George North, and Kahn Fotuali’i haven’t been talked about, and that trend will not end anytime soon. Corbisiero, along with Salesi Ma’afu, are as good replacements as could be found for Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati, and the additions of North and Fotuali’i add some real incision to a Northampton backline which at times last year struggled to cut open the better-drilled defences of the Aviva and Heineken Cup. You would be hard pressed to find a more physical second row and back row than Northampton’s, and if both Corbisiero and Ma’afu can stay fit, then they have a pack which should be able to at least earn parity with their opponents in Pool 1.
Last Season: Group Stage (finished second behind Ulster, but a way off being one of the best runners up).
Prediction: Northampton’s summer signings are impressive, and in another pool, I would tip them to qualify as one of the best runners up. However, given the strength of this pool, they could well struggle to amass the points required to qualify in this fashion.
Ospreys: It was a tough summer for the Ospreys, losing the likes of Fotuali’i, Jonathan Thomas and Ian Gough, but there is still plenty of talent available to the region, and they have four victorious Lions in their tight five alone. If the Ospreys can field their first choice XV, then they are a match for any side in this pool, but if injuries strike, then their depth has to be a worry for Head Coach Steve Tandy. Outside of Justin Tipuric, their back row, at least on paper, is no match for Northampton, Leinster or Castres, and they will need significant help from their tight five if they are to earn parity at the breakdown, and give Dan Biggar the kind of ball he needs to try and ignite the backline.
Last Season: Group Stage (third in their group, which also featured Leicester Tigers and Toulouse).
Prediction: it’s going to be a tough season for the Ospreys in Europe, and they will need something extraordinary from their international contingent if they’re to avoid an ignominious fourth placed finish in this ‘Group of Death’.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images