The Dark Shadow
This should have been a very exciting week in European rugby – but there are storm clouds gathering over the Heineken Cup. Rugby’s premier club competition is in danger of coming to a sudden halt come the final whistle at the Millennium Stadium on 24th May next year.
There is potentially still time to save this magnificent competition but ERC have to get a shift on and do more than make cosmetic changes if they are to save it – I am not hopeful and I’ll tell you why in another article next week.
But back to this year.
The first round begins on Friday with round 2 the following weekend before a break until December.
There are 6 pools of four teams with the top side qualifying for the quarter finals together with the two best placed runners up on points.
The rules for the pool draw are complicated and often don’t make sense – but no matter – it is what it is!
Here are this season’s pools –
Pool 1 – Castres, Leinster, Northampton and Ospreys
Pool 2 – Cardiff Blues, Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow and Toulon
Pool 3 – Connacht, Saracens, Toulouse and Zebre
Pool 4 – Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins, Racing Metro and Scarlets
Pool 5 – Benetton Treviso, Leicester Tigers, Montpellier and Ulster
Pool 6 – Edinburgh, Gloucester, Munster and Perpignan
Virtually every game is on Sky Sports and I’ll give a round up after the weekend.
To qualify you are likely to need around 20 points – which means you have to win all three of your home games and get one on the road plus bonus points for tries or losing by less than 7. There’s not much room for error and going down at home is likely to see you out of contention.
Pool 1 is a nightmare – all four teams have justifiable aspirations and it will almost certainly depend on away form. Leinster have a good record with three Cup wins in the last five seasons as well as being holders of the Amlin Challenge Cup (the second tier competition). But O’Driscoll is doubtful for the opener at Ospreys and both Northampton and Castres are a real danger. The Saints are in top form and have a squad to worry anyone. Although Castres have not started well in the Top 14 they are the current champions of the French league and upset Toulon’s double hopes last season.
I take Castres and Northampton to fight it out for the top spot in this bruising group with the Saints just getting home. There will be no runner up place from this bunch
Pool 2 – Toulon to qualify top and gain a home tie for the quarters. Exeter to continue their impressive away form and may just sneak one of the runners up spots
Pool 3 – Looks like an easy group for Saracens and Toulouse – there are bonus points available for both against the others and the top spot will be decided on the head to heads. Saracens to qualify – with Toulouse definitely getting one of the runner up places in the quarters.
Pool 4 – Quins look out of sorts this season and the Scarlets are also no match for the two French sides. Clermont Auvergne to take it but they will have to grab at least a bonus point on their visit north to Racing. Clermont will be hoping to have Ma’a Nonu to bulldoze his way in mid field alongside the silky skills of Fofana.
Pool 5 – I would have taken Leicester to come through comfortably with three wins guaranteed at Welford Road – but last week’s late draw to the Saints showed that maybe their home fortress may be more brittle these days. I still think they will qualify – but will need to be at their best. No runners up spot from this group – both Ulster and Montpellier will give few opportunities for many bonus points and will cancel each other out – one of them may even pip Leicester for top place.
Pool 6 – A pool which is easier to predict now that the season is under way – both Munster and Perpignan have had reasonable results to date – Gloucester and Edinburgh far less so. Gloucester’s home form in particular against muscular opponents looks vulnerable. Munster will miss Ronan O’Gara (highest points scorer in European Cup history) but nobody will relish going to Thomond Park and Paul O’Connell showed in Australia with the Lion’s that he is hungry again for glory.
Munster to take top spot and Perpignan to hope that Exeter and Toulouse drop points on the road to challenge for one of the two runners up spots.
There will no doubt be some surprising results that will change the pattern for the quarter finals – there always are in this competition – remember Edinburgh’s run to the semi -final in 2011/12 – knocking out Toulouse in the quarters and losing the semi by just 3 points away to Ulster.
We should be far more excited about this year’s competition than we are – but, as I said at the beginning, the dark clouds are gathering and this may just be the shadow of death on the horizon for the future of the Heineken Cup as we know it.