The new season of top flight European Rugby is now just days away, and here is The Rugby Blog’s preview of each pool and our views on which teams will emerge.
Pool 1: Cardiff, Castres, Edinburgh, Northampton Saints
It’s all relative of course, but this looks like one of the more straightforward pools, and it could yield one of the highest-scoring runners-up to qualify for the Quarter-Finals.
Northampton Saints are strong favourites for this pool, having started impressively in the Aviva Premiership. They ought to have too much for Edinburgh in both of their fixtures, and there’s a chance Castres will field weak teams and concentrate on the Top 14, so the Saints ought to be eyeing up a home quarter-final if they can overcome Cardiff.
Cardiff will also fancy their chances to top the pool, and they’ve already beaten Edinburgh once this season in the Magners League. A slip-up on the road from Saints or Cardiff could be decisive but I think Saints have the edge over their Welsh rivals, and I’m backing them to top the group.
To qualify: Northampton (Pool winner), Cardiff Blues (Best Runner-Up)
Pool 2: ASM Clermont Auvergne, Leinster, Racing Métro 92, Saracens
This looked like a strong pool the moment the draw was made, and given that Racing Métro have made a strong start in the Top 14, it’s now even closer to call.
Clermont are the current favourites at 6/4 to win the group, although they are actually below Racing in the Top 14 table – Racing’s price of 6/1 reflects the fact that this season will be their debut in this competition.
Saracens are going strong in the Aviva Premiership, and whilst Leinster have looked below par so far in the Magners League, their victory over Munster will give them a timely confidence boost.
This really is a tough group to call, which means it usually comes down to home form, and Clermont look most likely to win their home games and pick up perhaps one or two victories on the road. That said, Leinster or Saracens could just as easily qualify but I would think only one team will make it through.
To qualify: Clermont Auvergne
Pool 3: London Irish, Munster, Ospreys, Toulon
What a prospect this one is, and the mouth is already watering at the thought of London Irish taking on Munster this weekend. It’s just a shame that only one of these sides is likely to go through.
The Exiles are top of the Aviva Premiership, Munster are top of the Magners League and their European credentials are unquestionable, Toulon are second in the Top 14, whilst the Ospreys are also going well and will be tough to beat at home.
Toulon could be the surprise package of this group, and their all-star line up could compensate for a lack of Heineken Cup experience. However, the fact that it’s such a tight group usually means that only one team will go through, and although I fancy Irish to beat them this weekend, I’m backing Munster to emerge in the end.
To qualify: Munster
Pool 4: Aironi, Bath, Biarritz, Ulster
Whilst Ulster are an improving force in the Magners League, the bookies have this pool as a two-horse race between Bath and Biarritz.
However, as a huge Stephen Ferris fan, I do have a soft spot for Ulster, and I believe they have a good chance of qualifying for the knockout stages given the relatively shaky form of their counterparts. They are the only unbeaten side in the Magners League with four wins and a draw so far, and confidence ought to be high.
Bath have impressed at times this season, but their defeat at home to Gloucester on Friday showed a level of naivety that could see them exposed in Europe. You get the feeling that they’ll bounce straight back, but facing Biarritz in the first round is not ideal.
Moreover, last year’s beaten finalists have been significantly underperforming in the Top 14 so far, and whether they have the stomach for a fight on their travels in questionable. I can see them losing to Bath in Round 1 and then giving up mentally to offer Ulster the chance of an away win in Round 2.
To qualify: Ulster
Pool 5: Benetton Treviso, Leicester Tigers, Perpignan, Scarlets
Although Treviso have made a better-than-expected start to life in the Magners League, Pool 5 does look like a two-horse race between Leicester and Perpignan. Whilst Leicester haven’t been too convincing in the Aviva Premiership so far and are hampered by injuries, they should be looking for four wins from their fixtures with Treviso and the Scarlets.
Perpignan will be thinking the same, and I’d expect both sides to qualify from this pool, with bonus points and the two games between the English and French to decide the order in which they finish. Those back-to-back clashes in December are a glorious prospect, and I’d be very surprised if the Scarlets or Treviso can spring an upset.
I fancy Perpignan to edge it…
To qualify: Perpignan (Pool winner), Leicester Tigers (Best Runner-Up)
Pool 6: Glasgow Warriors, Gwent Dragons, London Wasps, Toulouse
It’s difficult to see any team but Toulouse taking the spoils in this group. Glasgow and the Dragons are both floundering near the bottom of the Magners League, whilst Wasps are a shadow of the side that last won this tournament in 2007.
Encounters between Wasps and Toulouse are always special, which is what we’ll be treated to in Round 1, and I can’t wait to see the French performing on the European stage once again. Thierry Dusautoir and Yanick Jauzion are two of the best players in the competition, and I’d expect them to stroll into the quarter-finals.
Wasps may just sneak a runners-up spot ahead of Leicester or Perpignan, so they’ll be looking for at least a point this weekend and then maximum points from their games with Glasgow and the Dragons, which won’t be easy.
To qualify: Toulouse
Click here to see the Heineken Cup Fixtures