If anything is capable of following such a momentous occasion as France 2007, it’s this year’s Heineken Cup.
A total of 199 players that featured in the World Cup will take part, and the 13th edition of the competition promises to be more fiercely contested than any other. The seeding system has thrown up some challenging pools which means the knockout stages effectively begin immediately.
Indeed, there aren’t many competitions in which you see two heavyweights such as London Wasps (the holders) and Munster (champions in 2006) slugging it out in the first round, but that is the quirky nature of the Heineken Cup and a feature that makes it so compelling.
So shake off your post-World Cup blues, settle back into your favourite armchair and get ready for seven pulsating games this weekend live on Sky Sports. To help get you in the mood, here is The Rugby Blog’s pool-by-pool guide. Remember that the winners of each pool qualify for the quarter-finals, along with the two best runners-up.
Treviso, London Irish, Perpignan, Newport Gwent Dragons
Because of the nature of the seeding system, pools with Italian teams often see two teams progress. This is good news for London Irish, because Perpignan are the big-hitters in this group boasting World Cup-winner Percy Montgomery among their stars. The French side are notoriously difficult to beat in the south of France, but the Exiles may fancy their chances at home. The Dragons and supposedly top seeds Treviso will just be making up the numbers.
Prediction: Perpignan to win, London Irish to go through as runners-up
Ospreys, Gloucester, Bourgoin, Ulster
The Ospreys represent Wales’ best hope, with big names such as James Hook and Shane Williams as well as our old friend Hale T-Pole, but they have never made it to the knockout stages and the Welsh misery looks set to continue. Gloucester will want to see a return on their summer spending spree and are currently the form side in the Guinness Premiership – they should also clinch this group if they can win away in Bourgoin and Ulster.
Prediction: Gloucester’s momentum to conitnue
Stade Francais, Bristol, Cardiff Blues, Harlequins
Stade Francais are many people’s favourites to take this year’s title, and with Juan Martin Hernandez, the Bergamasco brothers and Lionel Beauxis in their ranks, they deserve to be the leading contenders. However, Stade’s away form is often dubious and back-to-back games with Cardiff Blues will be crucial. England’s two sides in this pool are unlikely to challenge for a spot in the quarters, but Cardiff might just sneak a runners-up spot.
Prediction: Stade Francais to clean up
Glasgow Warriors, Saracens, Biarritz, Viadana
In a relatively weak pool, Biarritz are the heavyweights despite their desparately boring style of play, based around defence and tactical kicking (does that sound familiar?). When the club’s ‘next big thing’ has a name like Marcelo Bosch and plays at fly-half, you know you are in for a physical encounter. Saracens have a strong squad, with Chris Jack, Glen Jackson and Census Johnston among those to watch, and they could unlock the Biarritz defence when they visit Vicarage Road.
Prediction: Saracens to win, Biarritz to go through as runners-up
London Wasps, Clermont Auvergne, Llanelli Scarlets, Munster
Undoubtedly the toughest pool, but while it’s got Ian McGeechan’s goat, I like it. Wasps’ start to the season has been abysmal, but their Haskell-inspired comeback against Gloucester at the weekend could catalyse a turnaround in fortunes. Clermont Auvergne have plenty of strings to their bow – World Cup-winning captain John Smit and Fijian star Vilimoni Delasau to name just two – but they won’t fancy trips to the three inhospitable parks, Thomond, Stradey and Adams.
The Scarlets were outstanding in last year’s competition, but I fancy Muster to go through. Their Irish internationals will want to make amends for their World Cup shambles, and with strike runners like Doug Howlett out wide, they could be a formidable prospect this year.
Prediction: Munster by the grace of god and the skin of their teeth
Leinster, Leicester Tigers, Toulouse, Edinburgh
Another difficult group to call. Marcelo Loffreda will be targeting European success in his first season as Leicester coach, but against teams fielding quality like Brian O’Driscoll, Felipe Contepomi, Cedric Heymans, Thierry Dusatoir and Finau Maka, emerging from the group will be no walk in the park. None of Edinburgh’s players deserve to named alongside O’Driscoll et al, and they will struggle in such illustrious company. I fancy Toulouse to be unbeatable at home, steal a couple of away wins and let the other teams beat each other to let them run away with the group.
Prediction: Toulouse not to lose (sorry).
Overall, I’d put money on Stade Francais with all the talent they have available, but for an outside bet – and with decent odds – I’d go for Saracens. It’s a bold call, but some of the big guns won’t get out of the pool, and Chris Jack et al could surprise everyone.
Who are you backing for European glory?