Next up is Pool 4, featuring Aironi, Clermont, Leicester and Ulster.
Coach: Rowland Phillips
Ground: Stadio Luigi Zaffannella
Strengths: Featuring many of the Italian national team that featured at the Rugby World Cup, Aironi have a strong core. Their front five is filled with quality, including captain Quintin Geldenhuys, meaning their scrum and lineout shouldn’t struggle, whilst the backs include the RBS Six Nations 2011 Player of the Year Andrea Masi in the centre. Matteo Pratichetti and Kaine Robertson both are good finishers on the wings.
Weaknesses: The responsibility will fall on either Naas Olivier and Luciano Orquera to control tough matches by putting their efficient pack in the correct parts of the field. If they fail to do this, then they will struggle, and without doubt are the weakest side in this pool.
One to Watch: Tito Tebaldi
Italy’s first-choice scrum half over the last couple of years, Tebaldi looks a keeper, possessing the skills set and composure to handle international rugby and excel at Heineken Cup level. One of the finest young talents around.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Despite finishing fourth in their Heineken Cup group last season, Aironi pulled off one of the shocks of the tournament when they defeated Biarritz by a single point.
Prediction: The Italians will no doubt be spirited, but not enough to overcome the likes of Clermont, Ulster and Leicester. 4th
ASM Clermont Auvergne
Coach: Vern Cotter
Ground: Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin
Strengths: Another exceptionally strong squad, Clermont’s business over the summer was nothing short of excellent. Sitiveni Sivivatu, Nathan Hines, Lee Byrne, Regan King, David Skrela and Benjamin Kayser all came through the door, compensating for some big departures, whilst the core of Aurélien Rougerie, Morgan Parra, Julien Bonnaire and Thomas Domingo will continue to drive the side. Surely, this year Clermont can do some damage.
Weaknesses: Not that easy to spot given the strength of their squad. The only problem facing Vern Cotter is how to fit in so many talented players.
One to Watch: Alexandre Lapandry
A rising star in the French game, Lapandry is just 22 but highly rated and will be found scouring the pitch alongside excellent back-rowers Julien Bonnaire and Elvis Vermeulen.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Clermont have never progressed further than the quarter-finals, in 2000, 2002 and 2010.
Prediction: With that much talent flying around, and Leicester’s poor form, Clermont should progress to the quarter-finals. 1st
Coach: Richard Cockerill
Ground: Welford Road
Strengths: Despite their dreadful start to the season, Leicester now have all of their Rugby World Cup stars back in camp and expect the turnaround to begin. For the moment, they are without first choice centre pairing Anthony Allen & Manu Tuilagi, but have great quality in the pack with Martin Castrogiovanni, Marcos Ayerza, Thomas Waldrom and Tom Croft. Out wide, Alesana Tuilagi remains one of the biggest threats in the game, and their scrum and lineout remains one of the best around.
Weaknesses: Last week against London Irish, the Tigers failed to make the most of their chances to kill off the game, and their collapse was worrying. Toby Flood is no longer an 80% plus kicker, and their over-reliance on Alesana Tuilagi tends to backfire as defences lives become a lot easier targeting one man.
One to Watch: George Ford
The IRB Young Player of the Year will get his chance to impress at this level, with many people singling him out as England’s next fly-half. The first test will be to see how he copes with the pressure in the Heineken Cup.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: The only side to ever win back-to-back Heineken Cup titles in 2001 and 2002, Leicester have been runners-up three times in 1997, 2007 and 2009.
Prediction: Due to their poor start to the season, Leicester will need to start with a bang. Something doesn’t seem right though this time round with the Tigers mentally, so winning the group might be a step too far. 2nd.
Coach: Brian McLaughlin
Strengths: Ulster’s run to the quarter-finals last year was one of their best for a long time in this competition. The signings of John Afoa and Jared Payne were smart moves, though Payne has since been seriously injured, but the majority of last year’s squad remain. The South African core of Pedrie Wannenburg, Ruan Pienaar and captain Johann Muller will combine once more with talented Irish players such as Stephen Ferris, Ian Humphries and Andrew Trimble.
Weaknesses: Ulster have an excellent starting XV, but if those front line players are out injured then they could get in trouble.
One to Watch: Adam D’Arcy
The Australian born full back was a relative unknown at the beginning of last year’s tournament, but put in a series of eye-catching displays.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Champions in 1999, Ulster’s best finish since was reaching the quarter-finals last year.
Prediction: Against Clermont and Leicester it might prove difficult to get out of the group. But, if Ravenhill remains the fortress it has been for so many years now, and Ulster can pull off a surprise away win, then who knows. 3rd.