While the build up to this season’s Heineken Cup has focused on bureaucrats costing up its future, the time has now come for the world’s best club competition to show just why its potential demise has sparked such a furore.
Round one kicks off on Friday night with the Ospreys welcoming Treviso and Ulster hosting Castres but the tie of the weekend comes on Sunday, as the Tigers travel to French giants Toulouse.
Will Leicester roar as they lick their wounds from last season’s 41-7 exit, or will the Toulouse showmen put the Tigers back in their cage?
One thing for certain is that this season’s competition will provide a climax to the financial wriggle and discussion which has been tarnishing the game. The Irish will be hoping to keep their hands on the trophy, the French will be seeking their first victory since 2010, the English since 2007 and the Welsh, Scottish and Italian since, never.
Teams: Edinburgh, Munster, Racing Metro, Saracens
Rundown: Arguably the tightest group of the round. Munster are a team in transition and cannot continue to rely on late Ronan O’Gara showdowns while Edinburgh could struggle to repeat their heroic run of last season. Saracens were the only English side to qualify from the group stage in 2011/12 and their match-winning nous could see them grind their way through once again.
Teams: Leicester, Ospreys, Toulouse, Treviso
Rundown: The clash between Leicester and Toulouse is one of the ties of the group stage. Toulouse have scored points aplenty in the Top 14 while Leicester have struggled to raise their game against the bigger Premiership sides this season: Toulouse to edge it. Ospreys will be no pushover but a Tigers side still teeming from last season’s defeat to Ulster should have enough about them to go through as one of the best runners-up.
Qualifying runner up: Leicester
Teams: Biarritz, Connacht, Harlequins, Zebre
Rundown: Young clubs Connacht and Zebre are currently propping up the PRO12 table and they could prove easy meat for Harinordoquy’s Biarritz and Robshaw’s Harlequins. Biarritz should qualify on the basis of their inferior opposition while the Harlequins’ back line will be out to prove their pedigree on the European stage.
Qualifying runner up: Biarritz
Teams: Castres, Glasgow, Northampton, Ulster
Rundown: Ulster will come into the group stages full of confidence after their exploits last season and they will be hoping that the return of Tommy Bowe will help maintain their presence on the European stage. Northampton are an outside shout for a runners up qualification, but this group should be tough.
Teams: Clermont, Exeter, Leinster, Scarlets
Rundown: Leinster and Clermont are two of the most dangerous attacking sides in Europe and both lit up last season’s competition. Leinster are rightly the bookies’ favourite to lift the trophy while Clermont’s unpredictable away form could see them dropping points on trips to Sandy Park and the Parc y Scarlets. Expect to see a dogged performance from the Chiefs but neither they nor the Scarlets have a good chance of progression from this group.
Teams: Cardiff, Montpellier, Toulon, Sale
Rundown: Toulon sit on top of the Top 14 while Cardiff, Montpellier and Sale offer little more than Heineken Cup mediocrity. Jonny Wilkinson has been in fine form for Toulon this season and he will be hoping to shine on the European stage and remind Warren Gatland of what he can do. The Heineken Cup could prove a welcome distraction from Sale’s faltering Premiership campaign and they may well have their eye on an Amlin Cup spot.
How do you see the groups unfolding?
By Nik Simon
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images