CASTRES, FRANCE – Yesterday, we looked at how Pools One, Two and Three of this year’s Heineken Cup might pan out. Here’s the second and final part of our pool-by-pool guide to this year’s competition.
TEAMS: Clermont / Harlequins / Racing Metro / Scarlets
Last season’s losing Heineken Cup finalists Clermont have the biggest of points to prove, if only so they can heal the biggest of chips on their shoulder.
Vern Cotter’s side spent much of last season playing some of the most astonishingly exciting and coldly clinical rugby you could wish to see. They were THE side to watch in the Top 14, breezed their way to the top of the table, cruised to the showpiece match of the Heineken Cup, and even played had the better of the final in Dublin… and they STILL ended up with a trophy cabinet so naked it could have posed for Playboy.
There has been no silverware to polish at Clermont since 2010, when they won the Top 14. It’s also Big Vern’s swansong season at Stade Marcel Michelin so he’ll want to seal his legacy before handing over to the club’s current backs coach Franck Azema.
Chasing them all the way are likely to be big-spending Top 14 rivals Racing Metro, who have class by the bucketload in every position and, despite last week’s surprise defeat by Amlin Cup hopefuls Grenoble, are slowly being moulded into a lean, mean, match-winning machine by new coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.
They may rely too heavily on their expensively assembled stars to inject a little individual brilliance to pick up any trophies this season, but they will be there or thereabouts when it matters.
All of which is officially bad news for Harlequins and Scarlets, who will be left to battle it out for Pool 4’s wooden spoon.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH: Clermont / Racing Metro / Harlequins / Scarlets
TEAMS: Benetton Treviso / Leicester Tigers / Montpellier / Ulster
Leicester or Ulster? Welford Road or Ravenhill? The two-time winners and three-time runners up from the Midlands of England, or the one-time winners and 2012 runners up from Northern Ireland?
Take your pick. In a variation on a what’s-going-to-happen-in-Pool-3 theme, one of these two sides will win this group, with the other not far behind.
The joker in this particular pack is Montpellier. Fabien Galthie’s side can be devastating and frustrating in equal measure – often in the same match. When the mood takes them, they can tear apart almost any other side at will – as they have done against Toulouse and Clermont already in the Top 14 this season. When it doesn’t, it almost seems like it’s a waste of the players’ time and effort to walk out on to the pitch.
They have the unenviable role of kingmakers of Pool 5. How they play against Leicester and Ulster, at home and away, will go a long way to dictating a) who will win this pool, and b) if the team in second qualifies for the knockout phase, or is relegated to the Amlin Challenge Cup.
As for Treviso? Sorry, Treviso, don’t think that win against Munster means anything here. You’re just meat in this particular Heineken Cup Pool.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH: Leicester Tigers / Ulster / Montpellier / Benetton Treviso
TEAMS: Edinburgh / Gloucester / Munster / Perpignan
It’s unlikely there will be much between first, second and third in this Pool, which rivals Pool 1 for the right to be the one with the cliche ‘Pool Of Death’ written all over it – at least until Edinburgh come into the equation.
While two-time winners Munster are bound to start as favourites for qualification, with Gloucester hot on their tails, Perpignan could be worth a little long-odds bet for qualification for anyone lucky enough to still have a little mad money in these austere times. They’re tough to beat at home, and could give the big two a scare on the road.
Meanwhile, the role of meat in this Pool will be taken by Edinburgh, who are propping up the Pro12 after five games and whose new coach did not inspire huge confidence when he warned fans not to expect too much this season.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH: Munster / Gloucester / Perpignan / Edinburgh
Strongly agree? Agree? Disagree? Strongly disagree? 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.