Serving as a nice little distraction from all the boardroom drama, there are some rather exciting rugby matches on this weekend. The opening round of the Heineken Cup is always one of the best weekends in the rugby calendar, and it is such a shame that this one is tinged with sadness owing to the likelihood of it being the last one ever. Anyway, enough of that; on with the predictions.
There are three fixtures tonight, of which one firmly stands out. Ulster against Leicester is a game between two teams with plenty of history in this competition, and both will have genuine designs on winning the tournament this year. The Tigers are ravaged by injury in the backs, handing a debut to Miles Benjamin on the wing – this is a man who signed for the club over a year ago, but has not yet played due to injury. He has one reserve game under his belt. The forward battle will be ferocious, with Lions Rory Best and Tom Youngs reacquainting themselves in the front row, while Chris Henry against Julian Salvi at the breakdown will be a closely-fought contest. The Tigers are unlikely to suffer a drubbing like they did on their last visit here (41-7 in 2011), but Ulster have won 14 of their last 15 at home in the Heineken Cup and should get another one here. Elsewhere Toulouse could rack up a cricket score at home to Zebre, and expect Connacht to fight valiantly at home to Sarries, but ultimately be overcome by what will be a tidal wave of power from their pack.
Saturday’s headline game is an all-RaboDirect affair as the Ospreys welcome Leinster to the Liberty Stadium. Before their home loss to Ulster last weekend, the Welsh region had been looking in fine fettle, mixing the power of their Lions-bolstered pack with pace and guile in their backline, all orchestrated by the excellent Tito Tebaldi and Dan Biggar in the half-backs. Leinster have made a typically mixed start to the season, but will up their game for the first round of the Heineken Cup as they always do. It is a very difficult one to call, but I fancy the Ospreys to just nick it.
Elsewhere Northampton make what is a now familiar trip down to Castres, this being (incredibly) the fourth season in a row they have been drawn together in the group stages. The Saints have not won away at Castres at the last two attempts, but have a different look to them this year. Their new signings – not to mention the revelation that is Sam Dickinson – have given them new mettle and no little belief, and I think they’ve got a good chance of turning Castres over, despite the French champions’ impressive home form.
In Pool 6 hapless Edinburgh will likely come unstuck at home to a powerful Munster team that has started the season impressively, and Gloucester face a tricky home game against Perpignan. The Cherry and Whites have already lost twice at home this season, but Perpignan are notoriously poor travellers, even by French standards, and I can see the West Country outfit sneaking a win.
In the second Pool 5 game, Treviso will provide a stern examination of Montpellier’s credentials, and a win for the French side would signal their intentions to take Europe seriously again this year – lose and they face an uphill battle to qualify. Meanwhile Harlequins must look to get their season back on track with a bonus point victory against the struggling Scarlets at the Stoop – with Clermont and Racing Metro the other two teams in their pool, the maximum number of points in this fixture is a must.
Those two French heavyweights do battle on Sunday in Paris, in a game set to feature some of the biggest names in World rugby. Racing, playing at home, have the more expensively-assembled cast but have yet to properly fire this season, and were in fact embarrassed at home in the last round of the Top 14 by Grenoble. Clermont have been typically ruthless so far at home, but have suffered some big away losses – it’s one of the more difficult ones to pick this weekend, but I’m backing home advantage.
Sunday’s other two games both come from Pool 2, with Exeter welcoming Cardiff and Glasgow making the long trip down to Toulon. Sandy Park will be in raucous voice and should see Exeter secure their first European win of the season, while Stade Felix Mayol should prove a bridge too far for the hitherto undefeated Glasgow. The margin of victory for Toulon, however, will tell us a lot about whether Glasgow will be a force on the European scene this year – and given their sterling PRO12 form over the past couple of years, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be.
Round 1 SuperBru predictions:
Connacht v Saracens: Saracens by 14
Ulster v Leicester Tigers: Ulster by 6
Toulouse v Zebre: Toulouse by 45
Edinburgh v Munster: Munster by 20
Treviso v Montpellier: Montpellier by 5
Harlequins v Scarlets: Harlequins by 15
Castres v Northampton Saints: Saints by 3
Ospreys v Leinster: Ospreys by 5
Gloucester v Perpignan: Gloucester by 3
Exeter Chiefs v Cardiff Blues: Exeter by 10
Toulon v Glasgow Warriors: Toulon by 14
Racing Metro v Clermont Auvergne: Racing Metro by 3
How do you see this weekend’s games going?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images