Elite begin euro trail
October 9, 2008
Who will lift the Heineken Cup silverware this season? © Getty Images
The Heineken Cup - European club rugby's blue-chip tournament - begins its 14th season this week.
Twenty four teams - seven from France, six English, four Welsh, three Irish, two Scottish and two Italian - set off on what they hope will be a road to the final in Edinburgh next May.
So as they complete preparations for their opening games, out comes the crystal ball...
Munster have been there and done it so often in the Heineken Cup, they could open a T-shirt factory, and the usual suspects - O'Gara, O'Connell, O'Callaghan - are back for more, spearheading the Irish giants' European title defence.
Add Doug Howlett's prodigious try-scoring ability on the wing, an exhilarating fresh talent in 21-year-old Keith Earls and an unshakeable inner belief that Munster will win every Heineken Cup game they play, then Clermont, Sale and Montauban are contesting second place.
Clermont, French Championship finalists last season but inconsistency personified so far this term, should scrap for runners-up recognition with Sale. Montauban, meanwhile, will be long-gone by Christmas.
1 Munster; 2 Clermont Auvergne; 3 Sale Sharks; 4 Montauban.
Have Wasps, five defeats in six games this season, lulled everyone into a false sense of security? Are they the real Heineken Cup deal? Are they just not very good? Questions, questions and more questions.
Given the Londoners, tournament winners in 2004 and 2007, start against Castres then tackle Leinster in Dublin, they will need to find answers quickly, or the Irish dark horses could gallop several furlongs clear before Christmas.
Edinburgh, with Andy Robinson in charge, won't easily make way for anyone at Murrayfield, but alongside Castres, travel sickness could prove terminal.
1 Leinster; 2 Wasps; 3 Edinburgh; 4 Castres.
Will it be ``Dan the man'' or ``desperate Dan'' when All Blacks superstar Carter turns up in December to spearhead Perpignan's quarter-final push? With Carter on £30,000-plus per game, the credit crunch clearly hasn't hit Catalan country.
But New Zealand's finest will earn his money - and more - if he can steer the 2003 runners-up through a fiendish group where Leicester should be at their snarling, cussed best under Heyneke Meyer and the star-studded Ospreys are good enough to destroy any opponent.
Can the Ospreys' glitterati, though, sacrifice personal egos on the altar of team ethos? It is a challenge they simply have to overcome, or their Heineken Cup hopes will go west.
1 Perpignan; 2 Ospreys; 3 Leicester; 4 Treviso.
It's time for Stade Francais to roll up the sleeves on those garish pink shirts and get their hands dirty. In other words, the pin-up calendar boys of French rugby need to play smart.
Unbeaten in this season's French Championship, Stade once again look the part as they head into Europe, but everyone thought the same last season - and they promptly lost to Bristol and Cardiff.
Harlequins, a more steely, hard-nosed bunch these days under Dean Richards, could ruffle a few feathers, and the Scarlets can hardly be any worse than they were in Europe last term, but Stade ought to take some stopping.
1 Stade Francais; 2 Harlequins; 3 Scarlets; 4 Ulster.
Best runners-up normally reach the tournament knockout stage when they are able to knock off an Italian teams home and away, scoring a shed-load of points in the process, but this group could prove an exception.
On the surface, it should be decided by the two fixtures between three-time European champions Toulouse and 1998 winners Bath, with Glasgow and the Dragons merely making up numbers.
It is difficult to envisage a win for either team - apart from when they play each against each other - suggesting an Anglo-French procession to the last eight.
1 Toulouse; 2 Bath; 3 Glasgow; 4 Newport Gwent Dragons.
Gloucester should be sponsored by a High Street jeweller, given their big-game reputation as chokers, so the Cherry and Whites need to start proving their detractors wrong.
They should - emphasise, should - win the group with something to spare. Biarritz, for all the glitz and glamour associated with their chic corner of south-west France, are about as exciting as watching paint dry.
And the Blues often promise far more than they are capable of delivering, so the door is wide open for Gloucester. If they walk into it instead of through it, the fall-out could be significant.
1 Gloucester; 2 Biarritz; 3 Cardiff Blues; 4 Calvisano.
Quarter-finalists: Munster, Leinster, Perpignan, Stade Francais, Toulouse, Gloucester, Wasps, Bath.