ASM Clermont Auvergne
If there is a better case of ‘now or never’ in professional sports than Clermont’s chances in the Heineken Cup this season, I have yet to see it. Clermont have a phenomenally talented squad, but with Vincent Debaty, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire, Elvis Vermeulen, Aurelien Rougerie, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lee Byrne all the wrong side of 30, it’s likely this side will have to enter rebuilding mode in the near future. Outside of the aforementioned veterans, Clermont’s chances will hinge upon Thomas Domingo, Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana all dominating at their respective positions, and that is not a particularly difficult scenario to imagine. In addition to the quality of player already mentioned, Clermont also have one of the deepest squads in the competition, and are arguably only surpassed by Toulon.
Last Season: lost agonisingly in the final to Toulon.
Prediction: they have a tough pool to navigate first, but providing they can, they have all the tools required to make it back to the Heineken Cup final. Tricky away trips to both Harlequins and Racing Metro will already be circled on the calendar, but if they can at least pick up losing bonus points in both these games, they should still comfortably finish top of the pool.
Harlequins have been anything but consistent so far in the Aviva Premiership, and it remains to be seen just how big the losses of James Johnston and Olly Kohn in particular, really are. Paul Doran-Jones and Nick Kennedy were good replacements given the players available, but Doran-Jones is not on the same level as Johnston, and Kennedy is a very different player to Kohn, and there are already concerns over the potential balance of Quins’ engine room against quality opposition. That being said, Quins do often save their best performances for the big games, and it would not be surprising at all to see them catch Clermont or Racing off guard, and record a vital away win.
Last Season: lost in the quarter-finals at home to an inspired Munster.
Prediction: for Harlequins to qualify, they will need to win all of their home games, and at least pick up one away win. Given their form so far this season, that looks to be a bridge too far. Their biggest hope lies with turning The Stoop into a fortress, and if they can do that, they have a legitimate shot at a ‘best runner up’ spot, otherwise, it looks like a third place finish.
Racing Metro 92
If Northampton Saints stole the headlines in England for their summer signings, Racing Metro did the same and then some in France. Jonathan Sexton, Juandre Kruger, Brian Mujati, Soane Tonga’uiha, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts have all made their way to Paris this summer, as Racing attempt to assemble a squad as star-studded as some of their Top 14 rivals. Their early season form in the Top 14 has been solid, but certainly not spectacular, as the new arrivals attempt to gel with the existing squad. Despite having plenty of talent in their backline, Racing’s biggest strength is now arguably their front row, which for my money, is the deepest in club rugby, and could seriously outmuscle all but Clermont in this pool.
Last Season: Group Stage (finished third behind Saracens and Munster).
Prediction: Racing will have been disappointed with their performance in this competition last year, but this is a radically different, and improved, team. If Clermont win this group, then Racing have to be one of the favourites to qualify as a ‘best runner up’, as on paper, they are significantly stronger than Harlequins, and in a whole other league to the Scarlets.
The Scarlets lost some real talent this summer, with George North, Tavis Knoyle and Owen Williams all heading to England, and although the signings of John Barclay and Steven Shingler have been praised, they look a weaker team than one which entered this competition last season. There’s plenty of potential at the Scarlets, but when the region’s best player (by some margin) is Jonathan Davies, a back, it’s hard to be optimistic about the side’s chances against the gargantuan packs of both Clermont and Racing.
Last Season: Group Stage (finished fourth, losing all six of their games in the competition).
Prediction: it’s certainly not beyond reasonable doubt to expect the Scarlets to remain winless in this competition for the second year running, as they simply lack the talent to compete with the star-studded squads of Clermont and Racing. Their best hopes lie with upsetting an inconsistent Quins side, or a gelling Racing side, at Parc y Scarlets, but even if they can achieve this, fourth spot is all that realistically remains for them.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images