CASTRES, FRANCE – It may be the beginning of the end for rugby’s European Cup, but there’s a competition about to kick off. Here’s the first of a two-part, pool-by-pool, Heineken Cup Preview guide to the 19th – and what may or may not turn out to be the last – Heineken Cup as we know it.
TEAMS: Castres Olympique / Leinster / Northampton Saints / Ospreys
Perhaps Northampton and Castres should consider a spot of town-twinning, so often have their respective rugby clubs met in this competition. This is the fourth season in a row they have been drawn in the same pool – but while Northampton have reached the final twice, and even lifted the trophy, Castres have not progressed beyond the group stages.
Chances are history will repeat itself for the Top 14 champions, who are under new management this season following the departure to Racing Metro of the Laurents – Labit and Travers – and with Ospreys and three-time champions Leinster also in Pool 1.
Like Castres, Leinster also have a new head coach after Joe Schmidt was tempted to take over as Ireland boss, but it would be a shock of near-biblical proportions if the canny been-there-done-that Dublin-based side failed to make the later stages of the tournament in this, Brian O’Driscoll’s swansong year. Even if they have to start the competition without the man for whom the word ‘talisman’ may as well have been invented.
Even after their indifferent start to the Pro12 season, they are most likely to qualify as Pool 1 winners. The only question will be whether Northampton can do enough in the Heineken Cup group most likely to be branded ‘The Pool Of Death’ to make it into the knockout phase, or if they will be bounced down to the Amlin Cup.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH: Leinster / Northampton Saints / Castres / Ospreys
TEAMS: Cardiff Blues / Exeter Chiefs / Glasgow Warriors / Toulon
It’s almost impossible to look beyond Toulon in Pool 2 – if only because their roster reads like a Who’s Who of modern rugby legends. It’s looking increasingly likely that this will be the last season that His Rugby Highness Lord Jonny of Wilkinson graces the rugby field – but other stars are brightening the rugby skies around this corner of the Cote D’Azur. Expect to see Bryan Habana, Martin Castrogiovanni, Ali Williams, Drew Mitchell and Michael Claassens in Toulon colours at some point in the group stages. Maybe even at the same time.
Such a gathering of pure rugby talent means that, chances are, Toulon will leave battered, broken and beaten bodies scattered across Glasgow’s Scotstoun, Cardiff Blues’ plastic Arms Park, and Exeter’s Sandy Park.
Leaving Toulon out of the equation, this is a difficult group to call.
Exeter surprised many by qualifying for this year’s tournament, but are finding life in the Aviva Premiership a little more difficult this time around.
Glasgow, meanwhile, beat Cardiff at home on the opening day of the Pro 12, and followed that up by breaking down the walls at Ulster’s ‘Fortress’ Ravenhill on their way to five wins in their opening five games, while Cardiff will always be a difficult proposition, despite their indifferent start to the Pro12 season… unless you’re Toulon.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH: Toulon / Glasgow Warriors / Cardiff Blues / Exeter Chiefs
TEAMS: Connacht / Saracens / Toulouse / Zebre
There probably won’t be much in it between Saracens and Toulouse by the time the business end of the group stages comes around. You could easily bounce the four-time champions into top spot with the Premiership leaders second and no one – other than Sarries’ fans – would argue much.
Who wins this group will be decided in just two of the 24 scheduled Pool 3 matches – when Sarries face Toulouse at Wembley on October 18, and the return fixture at Ernest Wallon in early January.
Connacht will give their all, but have endured a very difficult season so far under new head coach Pat Lam. They’re just not good enough to reach the knockout phase of the competition.
Like Connacht – and despite picking up their first ever Pro12 win against Cardiff last month – Zebre will have their work cut out proving that they’re not simply here to make up the numbers, while pretty much just being there to make up numbers. That said, for a while they might threaten to deceive, but their rugby naivety will catch them out in the end.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH: Saracens / Toulouse / Connacht / Zebre
Log on tomorrow for our assessment of Pools three to six…
What do you think of our pool-by-pool guide so far? As ever, comments are always welcome… and do look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann and Declan Yeats, respectively.