Heineken Cup 2013-14: Pool 1 Preview

Castres Olympique

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.

Northampton Saints

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

9 thoughts on “Heineken Cup 2013-14: Pool 1 Preview

  1. That really is a tough pool. Should be some excellent games there

    I think N’hampton now have the firepower to qualify but they don’t seem to have got the winning habit yet, otherwise they’d have closed out Leicester on the weekend

  2. Castres ; “…making it all the way to the Top 14 final last season”, makes it sound like they fell at the final hurdle. They are the current French Champions.

    Whilst they only finished 4th in the league someway behind the top 2, they hammered Montpelier and Clermont before beating Toulon deservedly in the final. If they can switch it on in the Euro rounds like they did at the end of last season, then they can be a handful.

    That said, I would still fancy Northampton and Leinster. The danger is that they might damage the progression chances of whoever finishes second.

    However, because they have a smaller squad than the big French sides, it may well be that they don’t really focus on the HC like many French sides of the past. Ultimately I guess, it depends on what mindset they bring to the comp.

  3. I’ll go all Welsh again here – the Os pack is a monstrous handful when fit and this year their backline has been fizzing prior to the Ulster game. The worry is whether the Ulster game is their real level or a blip?

    Leinster have looked a little fragile so far this year.

    Castres have had a middling start to the Top 14 and got a bit shamed last weekend.

    I still fancy Northampton don’t have that edge. Too much self belief without the grit. They talk (as they did last year before the opening round) like they’re a team that expect to be in the latter stages. There to be hit at.

    I’m going

    Ospreys (well, they’ve gotta click one year havn’t they?)
    Leinster (I know, 3rd is low, but this is the group of death. They needed Sexton and BOD last year – no Sexton and a creaking BOD this year will hurt them).
    Castres (will concentrate on Top 14 once they lose their first match)

    1. Brighty I’d say (and this is speaking as a Tigers fan) that your appraisal of Northampton relates to them in years gone by, rather than this year. If you’re looking for edge, they’ve got Fotuali’i (who you know all about), Burrell and Pisi in the centres (the former of whom has matured into an international quality player), and North and Foden out wide. Even Myler has looked dangerous at times this season. Up front this Dickinson guy has exploded from no-where to be probably the player of the season so far – his carrying is frightening. Add that to Lawes and Manoa, and the set piece of Corbisiero and Hartley, and I’d say there’s plenty of all round edge there.

      That was very tough to write as a Tigers fan, and I’m annoyed you’ve made me fight their corner! That said, the only difference I’d make to your predicted pool finish is to swap Northampton with Ospreys. Agree their pack can also carry them pretty far this season.

      1. Jamie, I haven’t seen much of them this year and agree that on paper they sound better but that lead they let slip on the weekend seems a bit typical of them to me? Much like that year when Mallinder was up for the England job – they flattered early and then sunk later. Mallinder always has the look of someone hard done by in interviews – when it goes well it’s his plan, when it doesn’t then it was the ref, or the luck, or the weather, or something. He doesn’t seem to have the Cotter or Hansen, or (and I hate that you’ve made me speak a word of praise for that detestable man) Cockerill doggedness and refusal to look outside the group, the refusal to let losing be in the hands of anyone else.

        1. That’s fair, but to even have that sort of lead at Welford Road is impressive in itself. I think they’ll win something this season – more likely the Prem, but if they make it out of that Heineken group they’ll have the confidence to beat anyone.

          Also, did I just hear you praise Cockerill? Am I dreaming?

  4. I think you find Ospreys have 5 victorious Lions in their pack as they keep telling us it was not just about the test teams .

    For a team no match to Leinster back row they were unlucky not to beat them a few weeks ago so don’t rule them out and with Welsh rugby in turmoil at the moment there is no better time to for a region to stick two fingers up to the WRU

    1. Yes Ospreys do have 5 victorious Lions in their pack. But I think you’ll find that the article say 4 Lions in the tight 5, so I am unsure as to what you feel you are correcting.

  5. Opps apologies misread it

    Also dont forget if Ryan is fit and Tupi on the back row I think they will be more than a match for Saints

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