The final preview looks at the teams in Group 6; Connacht, Gloucester, Harlequins, Toulouse.
Coach: Eric Elwood
Ground: Galway Sportsground
Strengths: With a whole load of incomings and outgoings over the summer, Connacht look a very different outfit this season, particularly after losing three of their best talents in Sean Cronin, Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley. But, there is still plenty of quality in the side, with back rowers John Muldoon and Jonny O’Connor both talented players. If Connacht can get the ball wide to paceman Fetu’u Vainikolo, then the tries will come.
Weaknesses: The weakest of the Irish sides, Connacht have to make the most of their home advantage. Going to Galway will be an unusual experience for opposition teams, so the crowd and players must take control and put the pressure on. Otherwise, the scorelines could be damaging.
One to Watch: Mike McCarthy
The club captain, McCarthy won his first Ireland caps this year, and has made over 100 appearances for the province. A dynamic runner and enforcer in the lineout, he will lead from the front.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: This is Connacht’s first time in the Heineken Cup.
Prediction: It will be a baptism of fire for the new Irish side, but a home win against one of the other three teams in the pool is not out of the question. 4th
Coach: Bryan Redpath
Strengths: Gloucester’s team is made up of many young stars and some hard, old boys in the pack who’ve seen it all. This balance worked well last season when Gloucester won the LV=Cup, but they lost a lot of the players who led them to that title; Nicky Robinson, Paul Doran-Jones, Dave Attwood and Olivier Azam all moving on. With Kingsholm still a fortress though, Gloucester will expect to beat anyone at home, with Freddie Burns, Olly Morgan, Darren Dawidiuk and Henry Trinder the bright young English talent guiding the way.
Weaknesses: With Robinson having moved on to join London Wasps, Gloucester have Tim Taylor and Freddie Burns battling it out for the number 10 shirt, and neither of them are quite the full package, lacking the control that Robinson brought to the team. In the tight games, this could be exposed.
One to Watch: Charlie Sharples
Part of the England setup before the Rugby World Cup, Sharples made quite the impact last season, being described as “the fastest white man we have ever seen” by some of the England coaching staff and players. If given the ball in a bit of space, watch him go.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Gloucester’s best finish was reaching the semi-finals in 2001.
Prediction: Given Harlequins great start to the season and the quality in the Toulouse squad, Gloucester might miss out. 3nd
Coach: Conor O’Shea
Ground: The Stoop
Strengths: If Harlequins win against Connacht this Friday, it will be the best start to a season by any English club ever. 10/10 so far in all competitions, Quins benefited from not losing too many stars to the Rugby World Cup, but at the same time were crippled by injuries. Their young talent really stepped up, but now that Danny Care, Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter are all back in the fold, their spine has returned. Oh, and they have Nick Evans, the best fly-half in Europe.
Weaknesses: The youngsters may have been able to handle weakened Premiership teams during the Rugby World Cup, but it will take a lot more to overcome the likes of Toulouse in Europe. Too many injuries and their best efforts could be de-railed.
One to Watch: Chris Robshaw
Touted as the next England captain despite just the one international cap, Robshaw’s influence on Harlequins is immeasurable. The blindside flanker will lead his team from the front, relishing to put a big result over the esteemed opposition of Toulouse.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Three quarter-finals in 1997, 1998 and 2009.
Prediction: Quins certainly have the momentum going into this, but it might be too much for them to leapfrog Toulouse. They should certainly qualify as a best runner-up however. 2nd.
Coach: Guy Novès
Ground: Stade Ernest-Wallon
Strengths: Another team with one of the strongest squads, losing in the semi-finals last year to eventual champions Leinster will have hurt. Their recruitment has again been enviable; Luke Burgess, Luke McAlister, Lionel Beauxis and Gurthrö Steenkamp are all world-class, whilst they will be lead once more by the IRB Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir.
Weaknesses: Honestly, none. The strength of their first XV and squad is exceptional.
One to Watch: Luke McAlister
The former Sale Sharks and Auckland Blues playmaker missed out on selection for the Rugby World Cup, but has made quite the impact so far at Toulouse. Already a crowd favourite, he has racked up 93 points so far this season.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Champions four times in 1996, 2003, 2005 and 2010.
Prediction: Toulouse should progress from this group without too much trouble, apart from the threat of Harlequins for top spot. Potential candidates for top seeds. 1st.