Connacht’s Heineken history may not be long, reaching back only a couple of years, and they may be very much the ‘fourth’ Irish region, but nobody can say they do not add value to the tournament given some of the scalps they have claimed at the Sportsground in that time. Last season they overcame Biarritz, who despite not being the force they once were, still expected to win. The season before that, they vanquished Harlequins and also came within four points of beating Gloucester at Kingsholm. And two seasons ago, they did the double over Montpellier in the Amlin Cup, and made it all the way to the semi-finals where they lost to Toulon by just seven points. So, nobody will expecting an easy ride over in Ireland and with Craig Clarke rallying the troops and Dan Parks pulling the strings, they will be a tough proposition at home.
Last season: won half of their pool games to finish third, an admirable three points behind Biarritz.
Prediction: with Saracens and Toulouse in their pool there is, sadly, little to no chance of Connacht qualifying. However, expect them to be competitive in every game at home and possibly spring a shock on Toulouse or Sarries – although the power of their respective packs makes that less likely than in years gone by. Their games against Zebre will decide who ends up bottom of the pool, and Connacht should have enough to avoid that ignominy.
Sarries have made a powerful start to the season, winning all of their first five games. They have a humungous pack that will rival that of Toulouse, and will be simply too powerful for both Zebre and Connacht. They will be aware of the fact that teams have slipped up at the Sportsground before, but will back themselves to take, if not maximum points, then four wins from four against those two teams. With Owen Farrell starting the season strongly at fly-half they can be confident of unleashing a backline that, while it might not look the most dangerous on paper, has started the season in fine try-scoring fettle. Look out in particular for Joel Tomkins in midfield, who will be hoping to use the Heineken Cup as a stage to press his claims for an England spot. Expect Billy Vunipola to do likewise in the back-row.
Last season: made it to the semi-finals, where they were defeated by eventual winners Toulon.
Prediction: historically any pool with Zebre in has produced two qualifiers, especially when it contains the weakest Irish province as well. Sarries should qualify comfortably, and it will likely come down to bonus points to decide whether it is they, or Toulouse, who top the pool.
Nobody has European pedigree quite like Toulouse. They have stuttered in recent seasons as the recruitment at Toulon and Clermont has seen them overtaken both domestically and in Europe, but tied at the summit of the Top 14 after nine rounds Toulouse look to be back to their best. Luke McAlister has a tendency to blow hot and cold at fly-half, but when he gets it right Toulouse have the pace and power in their backs to blow anyone away. Gael Fickou in the centre is a precocious talent and if managed correctly, could go on to be one of the best players of his generation. His partnership with the experienced Florian Fritz brings a beautiful balance to the midfield, and with the striking talents of Hosea Gear, Timoci Matanavou, Maxime Medard, Yoann Huget and Vincent Clerc all on offer out wide, there is the potential for some serious tries. How Billy Vunipola goes against Toulouse’s imposing iceberg of an eight Louis Picamoles will be a great gauge of his progress.
Last season: were pipped to qualification by one point by the Tigers, and crashed out of the Amlin Cup in the quarter finals.
Prediction: should qualify comfortably provided they can negotiate the trip to the Sportsground – if the opening salvoes of the Top 14 have reinforced one old adage, it is that French sides do not travel well. The battle for first place in the pool with Saracens will be tight, but the French powerhouses should edge it.
Zebre’s first ever win against Cardiff earlier this year could not have come at a better time for them, as the arguments over the fairness of the Heineken Cup’s qualification system reached a crescendo. They haven’t a hope in hell of progressing from this pool, but even one win would strengthen their hand hugely. Brendan Leonard has proved a shrewd signing, and although he is not the most dazzling player his partnership with the frustratingly mercurial Luciano Orquera is well balanced. They have been drawn in Connacht’s pool for the second year running – last season the Irish province did the double over them, but that will not be as easy this year after the confidence granted the Italians after their first ever win.
Last season: no wins, one solitary bonus point and points difference of -152. Couldn’t have been much worse.
Prediction: they will not worry either Sarries or Toulouse – their only hope of a win will come against Connacht, but even that will probably be a stretch too far.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images