Europe’s premier club rugby competition returns this weekend. In our first set of previews ahead of the tournament, we go through Pool 1.
Coach: Laurent Labit
Ground: Stade Pierre-Antoine
Strengths: Castres have some exceptional talent in the backs, with their summer signings including former Sharks scrum-half Rory Kockott and Scotland back Max Evans. Couple that talent with the power of Seremaia Bai in the centre and the pace of France wing Marc Andreu, and you have a very special back line.
Weaknesses: Despite having Chris Masoe and Luc Ducalcon, their pack is from the strongest in the tournament. They may struggle therefore upfront.
One to Watch: Romain Teulet
With over 2000 points in the Top 14, Teulet goes by the excellent nickname of RoboCop in France due to his unique kicking style. Now at the club for over a decade, Castres will need him to hit the mark as many times as possible to progress from this group.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Castres have only progressed from the group stages once, reaching the Semi-Final in 2001-2002, where they lost to Munster 17-25.
Prediction: Given the big name teams in their squad, Castres are going to struggle, with home dominance essential. 4th
Coach: Tony McGahan
Ground: Thomond Park
Strengths: Where they have always lied. Munster’s forwards may be starting to get a bit long in the tooth, but that hasn’t stopped them continuing to dominate the scrums, line outs and mauls. With Marcus Horan & John Hayes waning, Wian Du Preez and BJ Botha are both excellent scrummagers. They are blessed with quality at 9 in Conor Murray and Tomas O’Leary, whilst Ronan O’Gara is there to kick the points. This is all before you look at the pace and finishing abilities of Keith Earls, Doug Howlett and Felix Jones.
Weaknesses: The invincible aura that Munster used to swagger into this tournament with has disappeared. Winning at home is good but you have to win away as well, something they failed to do in all three group games last year.
One to Watch: Felix Jones
One of the most exciting talents in Irish rugby, Jones is now the main man in the 15 shirt following the departure of Paul Warwick to Stade Français. He narrowly missed out on the Rugby World Cup due to an ankle ligament injury.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Two titles, 2006 and 2008.
Prediction: Facing Northampton first at home could provide early momentum to win the group, but 2nd would be a good achievement. 2nd
Coach: Jim Mallinder
Ground: Franklin’s Gardens
Strengths: So close last year, Northampton were left hurt by their collapse in the Heineken Cup final. Jim Mallinder spoke last week about the game being one of those results that stays with you for years, but glory this year would no doubt make it go away a lot sooner. This year, they have enough talent beyond their excellent first XV to rest their big players when it matters, increasing their chances.
Weaknesses: The Stephen Myler/Shane Geraghty dilemma of last season has instead been replaced by one between Myler and new boy Ryan Lamb. Neither is the perfect 10, with Lamb mixing moments of brilliance with rubbish and Myler at times too conservative but excellent with the boot.
One to Watch: Vasily Artemyev
The Russian wing has started life in the Aviva Premiership brilliantly, so it will be intriguing to see how he steps up in the Heineken Cup. 6 tries in four games suggests good things.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Champions in 1999, losing finalists last year.
Prediction: Hungry, a settled side, fresh strength in depth. Northampton may not finish as top seeds this year as they did last year when they went 6/6, but they should win this group. 1st
Coach: Nigel Davies
Ground: Parc y Scarlets
Strengths: With plenty of players announcing themselves on the world stage at the Rugby World Cup, the Scarlets are running plenty of talent this year. An all-star back line of Welsh talent, and Sean Lamont, includes bright talents such as Scott Williams, George North and Jonathan Davies, as well as Scarlets veteran Stephen Jones.
Weaknesses: Their pack does not quite match the quality of their backs, especially in the second row where Dominic Day and Lou Reed are joined by Sione Tamani. In tight matches against the powerful packs of Northampton and Munster, they could come unstuck.
One to Watch: Rhys Priestland
Voted as the best fly-half in the tournament by you, the readers of The Rugby Blog, Priestland was exceptional in New Zealand, and was sorely missed in Wales semi-final against France. Whether at 15 or at 10 for the Scarlets, he will be worth keeping tabs on.
Heineken Cup Pedigree: Three semi-finals, in 2000, 2002 and 2007.
Prediction: The lack of firepower upfront could leave them unstuck, but the Scarlets have the backs to beat anyone on their day. If they can pick an away win or two, then they may well progress. 3rd