Heineken Cup Preview: It’s crunch time again

Toulouse flyer Hosea Gear
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CASTRES, FRANCE – The Heineken Cup has been big news off the pitch, as English and French clubs led a big breakaway from the competition… then the French apparently changed their minds and re-signed to the existing competition, leaving English sides out in the cold.

The political backbiting between clubs and unions has been a shame for a competition that has done no wrong for the better part of two decades, so it’s good to see the action return to the pitch.

Just to add a little extra spice, it’s double-header time, as the sides meet for the first of two games, home and away, in a week.

Northampton Saints v Leinster promises to be the tie of the round, as second entertains first in this season’s Pool of Death. The week leading up to the match has been one of differing fortunes for the two sides. The hosts are missing prop Alex Corbisero, who will be out for up to four months following knee surgery, while full-back Ben Foden also faces a long stretch on the sidelines.

Leinster, meanwhile, have been boosted by the return of club captain Leo Cullen, who played his first game this season against Scarlets in the Pro12 at the weekend.

The lock has played 90 European games, and experience like that will be vital as the three-time Heineken Cup champions look for the brace of wins that could put them within touching distance of the knockout phase.

Adam Jones could scrum down for Ospreys against Castres in the Heineken Cup
Adam Jones could scrum down for Ospreys against Castres in the Heineken Cup

The other Pool One teams, Castres and Ospreys, meet at the Top 14 champions’ fortress Pierre Antoine on Friday. The visitors will welcome the news that the One True Prop, Adam Jones, who picked up a calf injury playing for Wales against South Africa, is in line to return to action after nearly three weeks on the physio’s couch.

He’ll be vital to their hopes of success against the French outfit, who are no slouches at the setpiece. Ospreys have lost their first two games, so even the return of the hirsute one may not be enough to save their Heineken Cup ambitions this season, especially as Castres are almost unbeatable at home.

After two games, Exeter Chiefs are the surprise leaders of Pool Two – and they are reaping the commercial benefit as tickets sold out for Saturday’s game long before kick off. But their reign may be short-lived, as they entertain defending Heineken Cup champions Toulon, before heading to south-east France seven days later.

A single point separates first from fourth in this pool, so these two matches are vital for all four clubs’ ambitions. After their 23-0 humiliation at Stade Francais in the Top 14 last weekend, Toulon will expect nothing less than two command performances against the side from south-west England as they look to put the wheels back on their season. Exeter have played some exciting rugby, but they could find the stars of the Var side too hot to handle both at Sandy Park and Stade Mayol.

Cardiff Blues welcome Glasgow Warriors to the plastic pitch of the Arms Park, where they will be hoping to reignite the Heineken Cup spark that saw them shock Toulon in the second weekend of the competition in October.

Gregor Townsend’s Warriors turned round a 10-point deficit to beat Welsh opponents Ospreys in the Pro12 last week, but the Blues are likely to field a full-strength side, including Lions Leigh Halfpenny as well as Sam Warburton, Alex Cuthbert and Gethin Jenkins.

Expect a brutal encounter as Glasgow are also likely to field a near full-strength side, featuring many of the club’s seven internationals, who returned to domestic action against Ospreys.

Toulouse flyer Hosea Gear
Toulouse flyer Hosea Gear

After their clash of the Pool Three titans last time out, Saracens and Toulouse will both be expecting to pick up big points against easier opponents Zebre and Connacht respectively.

The London side have arguably the more difficult job this weekend. Zebre can be surprisingly difficult to break down at home. But expect a reasonably comfortable Sarries’ win on the road this week – and a monster victory next.

Pro12 basement side Connacht have an unenviable trip to Toulouse’s Ernest Wallon. The Top 14 side have not lost at home this season, and have racked up a few big scores in the process. It’s hard to see the fourth Irish province bringing Toulouse’s home winning streak to an end.

Former Bayonne scrum half Mike Phillips has signed for Racing Metro, and could face Harlequins in the Heineken Cup
Former Bayonne scrum half Mike Phillips has signed for Racing Metro, and could face Harlequins in the Heineken Cup

The big news from Pool Four is that Wales and former Bayonne scrum-half Mike Phillips has signed for Racing Metro and is set to make his debut for his new club on Saturday in Nantes in the first of their Heineken Cup double-header against Harlequins.

Given that Racing already have several scrum-halves on their books – including France international Maxime Marchenaud, who scored 12 of their 17 points in a Top 14 victory over Montpellier at the weekend – the signing of Phillips is something of a mystery. Still, he’s sure to give his side a new edge against the Aviva Premiership side, and has probably already scattered their pre-match scouting to the four winds.

All that remains is for Racing’s coaches Labit and Travers to find a way for him to fit in with the rest of their superstar side – though at least he and fly-half Jonny Sexton have previous with the Lions.

Expect to see many a reference to Clermont’s incredible winning streak at home (67 matches, dating back to November 2009, in case you’d forgotten, or mysteriously failed to read any of Rugby Wrap Up’s Top 14 coverage this season) as they welcome Scarlets to Stade Marcel Michelin for their Heineken Cup clash.

It seems it has become almost illegal to break this record. Brive – of all sides – came surprisingly close in the Top 14 a few weeks ago, but then mysteriously stopped playing, and Racing Metro were put to the sword when Clermont last played at home on November 23. It really is difficult to see Scarlets bringing the run to a halt this weekend.

Leicester's Toby Flood
Leicester’s Toby Flood

Leicester face arguably the most unpredictable two matches of the season – at home and away to Montpellier in Pool Five. The Top 14 side can be brilliantly stunning and frustratingly awful in equal measure, sometimes in the same match.

The thoroughly professional Tigers should win at home and, depending on which Montpellier side turns up, may even pick up a potentially crucial four points on the road. Then again, the Herault side may be feeling unstoppable when they turn up on the day.

Leicester need to win if they are to keep big Pool Five rivals, Ulster, in sight – and keep their Heineken Cup hopes alive. Even without Tommy Bowe, who has a muscle tear that could keep him out of action for six weeks, the unbeaten Belfast side are unlikely to struggle against Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill. They could well have one foot in the knockout phase after their little Italian job seven days later.

It’s all to play for in Pool Six, too. Perpignan are currently top of the table, but face a mission almost-impossible as they travel to southwest Ireland to face Munster at Thomond Park.

Meanwhile, after two wins in nine Premiership games, Gloucester desperately need a win to kickstart their season – but opponents Edinburgh are performing better than many pundits expected before the season started. Expect a tense, drama-filled affair in front of a meagre crowd at Murrayfield.

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"