Europe's finest primed for 'defining' round
December 8, 2009
Rob Howley celebrates with the Heineken Cup following Wasps' victory over Toulouse in the 2004 season finale © Getty Images
Heineken Cup winner Rob Howley believes the next two rounds of Europe's premier club competition will be pivotal in the battle for this season's crown.
The former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half, who memorably tasted Heineken Cup glory with Wasps in 2004, has warned this year's title hopefuls that it could well be a case of make or break over the next fortnight.
"All the teams know that these back-to-back rounds are often the defining moment of the competition," said Howley. "These games can either give you momentum and lift you to the top of your group or leave you floundering."
As a fan of the high-octane drama regularly served up by the Heineken Cup, Howley is not alone and in his role as an assistant coach with Wales he welcomes the Test match-like intensity of the competition and the demands it makes on players.
"I think it is mouth-watering when you look at the sides that are drawn together," he enthused. "You only have to look at Leicester, Clermont and Ospreys, at the Blues and Toulouse, at Leinster, Scarlets and London Irish. You've got quality sides going against each other in every round. Unfortunately that means some quality sides are going to miss out but you know if you turn up on the day and play well against one of the top sides then you will have the opportunity to play for the title of the best side in the northern hemisphere - that is what is so special about the tournament.
"From a coach's perspective, you see how players react under pressure and the critical moments that occur in international rugby can happen in the Heineken Cup. It's great theatre and I think players aim to be at their best when Heineken Cup games come along. The rewards that come with being the best side in the northern hemisphere is the key.
"I also think the drama that the Heineken Cup has produced in the last few seasons means the supporters continue to get behind their sides and buy into the competitive environment of the competition."
The Heineken Cup reaches Round 3 this weekend with another series of eagerly-anticipated clashes - but who will take a step closer to this season's finale at the Stade de France in Paris on May 22, 2010? Rob Howley gives us his views on four of the big match-ups:
Munster v Perpignan - Pool 1, Thomond Park, Limerick, Friday, December 11
Cardiff Blues v Toulouse - Pool 5, Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday, December 12
Scarlets v Leinster - Pool 6, Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli, Saturday, December 12
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester - Pool 3, Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand, Sunday, December 13
Rob Howley is a Heineken ambassador. Heineken are proud to be celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Heineken Cup and title sponsor since its inception in 1995. www.heinekenrugby.co.uk
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14
With just two rounds left in the regular season, we look at the prospects of the teams taking part in the Championship play-offs
Joe Simpson talks to Charlie Morgan about loss, Wasps and being England's game-breaker