The Heineken Cup, Europe’s premier club tournament, kicked off this past weekend to rapturous applause. Some of Europe’s elite cemented their credentials as genuine challengers for the trophy, whilst others succumbed to the test match-like pressure and gave themselves an uphill battle to qualify after just one game.
Securing a home quarter-final has proven critical more often than not in determining who eventually goes on to win the tournament, and a loss in the opening game, especially one without a bonus point, can severely hamper a team’s chances.
One such team were Leicester Tigers, who arguably had the toughest fixture of the opening round, making the unenviable trip to Le Stadium to play European heavyweights Toulouse. This fixture pitted perhaps the two pre-tournament favourites against one another.
Leicester ultimately fell to a 23-9 loss, failing to secure a bonus point in a game where the wet conditions were almost unanimously believed to hinder Toulouse’s playing style more than the visitors. The lack of a losing bonus point will hurt the Tigers, and they will need a convincing victory when they host the Ospreys this weekend if they are to keep their tournament hopes alive.
Whilst Leicester seemed to suffer from poor decision making at times against Toulouse, the four-times winners from France showed a maturity and composure which allowed them to win the game despite not playing to anywhere near their potential. A fearsome pack and talented backs division make Toulouse one of the favourites for the trophy, even playing in arguably the most difficult pool of the Heineken Cup.
Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins saw off Biarritz in emphatic fashion at the Twickenham Stoop, a performance which was all the more impressive for the early departure of talented fly-half Nick Evans early in the game. Saracens were also dominant in their 45-0 victory against Edinburgh at Murrayfield, proving to be too physical and clinical for the Scottish side to compete with. Providing Evans can return in the ‘weeks, not months’ that Conor O’Shea has stated, Harlequins and Saracens remain the most likely to bring the trophy back to England on early form.
Outside of Toulouse, French hopes predominantly lay with Toulon and Clermont, both of whom boast star-studded squads with high levels of experience at the top level. Toulon saw off the challenge of Montpellier 37-16 in their opening game, whilst Clermont took no prisoners in a 49-16 victory over the Scarlets. Toulon will be favourites to top their pool, but Clermont will have to contend with the current champions Leinster and the resilient Exeter Chiefs if they are to do the same.
The opening weekend offered mixed fortunes for the traditionally successful Irish sides. Munster suffered a big blow to their hopes as they lost to Racing Metro in Paris, but a losing bonus point means that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the men from Thomond Park. A narrow 9-6 win for Leinster over Exeter at RDS was almost as disheartening as Munster’s loss, as the defending champions looked out of sorts throughout the game and were lucky to have escaped with the victory. Last season’s finalists Ulster should not be forgotten either as they picked up a bonus point win against Castres, in what was one of the most impressive performances of the weekend.
A dark weekend for the Welsh and Scottish sides was briefly lit up by a victory for the Ospreys over Benetton Treviso, but their future prospects in the tournament will be dependent largely on their away trips to both Toulouse and Leicester Tigers.
On early form, it’s hard to imagine the likes of Clermont, Saracens and Harlequins not being a force in the latter stages of the tournament, but the quality of opposition faced also needs to be strongly considered. Both Toulouse and Leinster looked below par in their wins, but faced difficult opponents, whilst the European pedigree of Munster and Leicester cannot be ignored.
One thing that does seem fairly certain to me however is that this season’s champion will once again be from England, France or Ireland, barring a Herculean campaign from the Ospreys. Injuries can make or break a team’s season, but providing they stay healthy, and emerge unscathed from arguably the two toughest pools, Toulouse and Saracens are the two teams to watch in this year’s tournament.
By Alex Shaw