The Heineken Cup stepping stone?
September 29, 2010
Can Toulon emerge from the shadow of last season's disappointments? © Getty Images
Lawrence Dallaglio could, if the mood struck, retitle his CV - 'Been there, done that.' Following in the footsteps of a player who has won the Rugby World Cup, a series with the British & Irish Lions, two Heineken Cups and a clutch of Premiership titles is a difficult task and one which will prove to be beyond all but the finest players - those blessed not only with talent but also in terms of timing and circumstance.
This season Cardiff Blues and Toulon will be interested in the aftermath of one of the more modest achievements on Dallaglio's resume, namely his 2002-03 Parker Pen Challenge Cup victory with Wasps. Victory in Europe's second-tier competition was the jab that prefaced the uppercut of the London club's 2004 Heineken Cup triumph.
The back-to-back titles announced Warren Gatland's men as European heavyweights after several years on the periphery, a note which will sound familiar to players and fans of the Blues, who finally brought home the bacon from a European season with victory in May's Amlin Challenge Cup final. Their conquered foes, Toulon, had home advantage and a European pedigree founded by cash rather than results - but the ambitious club and their fabulous fans are not long for the wilderness.
Their Heineken Cup debut is now a matter of days away and their much-vaunted squad, featuring such luminaries as Jonny Wilkinson, Carl Hayman and George Smith will be eyeing revenge for last season and also one of the tournament's major statements - namely emerging from a group also containing the Ospreys, London Irish and two-time winners Munster.
This group, while a challenge to be savoured by fans of doing things the hard way, is the reason why Dallaglio is backing Cardiff as the club who can turn Amlin success into a stepping stone to the big time. The Blues have Northampton, Castres and Edinburgh in their Pool and the Wasps legend believes that they have the goods to progress.
"I think Toulon are in a very tough group," he said. "Cardiff, in my opinion, have got the best chance. Toulon to me appear to be a team that are still recovering from the hangover of having everything within their grasp at the end of last season and coming away with nothing. All their players are still settling down a little bit, they've got a lot of new players that have come in, lots of money, lots of whatever.
"Cardiff on the other hand have got that real momentum from last year. They won away at Newcastle, away at Wasps and then they won away at Toulon. Their squad will have been encouraged by that and will have learned from that. They're in a group with Northampton, which will be tough, but I think that they've got the ability to go on the road and win games. Of the Welsh hopes, if I'm honest, they probably carry the edge just ahead of the Ospreys given the quality of group the Ospreys are in."
Dallaglio doubts the validity of the argument that whoever survives Toulon's 'group of death' will be battle-hardened and in pole position for an assault on the knockout stages. He believes that home advantage in the last eight is vital - more so if you are a French club prone to alarming lapses on the road à la Perpignan in Treviso last season.
"Home advantage in the quarter-finals is crucial," he said. "The teams that come out of that group may not come out of it necessarily with home advantage. But, if you come out of it you would have beaten some very good sides. No side holds any fear once you've qualified out of that group.
"On the big occasion I don't think anyone can doubt their [French sides] ability. Yes they can win in the south of France, but have they got the ability to take that game on the road? Especially if they get drawn away from home in the big games; I would say not. I would fancy my chances against any French team on home soil. Why shouldn't you?"
The brutal nature of the Heineken Cup's Pool stages will again have a knock-on effect in the Amlin, a tournament that for the first time last season raised interest levels beyond passing curiosity. The final at Marseille's Stade Velodrome was a finer spectacle than the preceding day's Heineken final in Paris - and Dallaglio is predicting further growth when some big names drop down for the quarter-finals.
"If you look at the two groups of death in the Heineken Cup, it would suggest that anyone in the Amlin Cup who's got ideas of winning it has got to overcome some pretty big hurdles towards the end of the competition," he said. "It really puts it on the map."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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