Toulouse set for repeat win?
October 4, 2010
Will Toulouse be celebrating another Heineken Cup success in Cardiff in 2011? © Getty Images
The memory of last season's Heineken Cup final triumph over Biarritz may be starting to fade in the collective memory of Toulouse's players and fans but the French giants could soon be celebrating another European triumph, according to at least one respected observer.
The glittering CV of former England, Lions, Leicester and Harlequins centre Will Greenwood may be missing a Heineken Cup win but as an analyst for UK broadcaster Sky Sports he has a front-row seat for the battle for European supremacy and fully expects Le Rouge et Noir to dominate proceedings once again, thanks largely to the financial clout of the Top 14.
"Toulouse can win group six with their second team out," said Greenwood, reflecting on the challenge offered by their pool rivals Glasgow, Dragons and Wasps. "And if they do they will have a home quarter-final and if you are doing the odds you would expect them to have a home semi-final and make it to this season's final."
Greenwood has also predicted a strong showing from Toulouse's French rivals Clermont Auvergne, who face a much stiffer task in the pool stages with Leinster, Saracens and tournament newcomers, and current Top 14 leaders, Racing Metro providing the opposition.
"I also like Clermont but they have got a tough old group," he said. "I'm keen for them to do well and I think they might now they have finally won the French championship. I've seen a little bit of Racing but my concern is what is most important to them? The Top 14 or Europe? And the make-up of that pool also suggests you would need a bit of experience to progress. But to be honest, the obvious answer as to who is most likely to win is there in group six."
France's domination of the tournament last season - having supplied four of the quarter-finalists - came largely at the expense of England's leading clubs with Northampton the only Premiership club to make it out of the pool stages. Greenwood believes the financial muscle of the Top 14's leading sides and their larger playing squads ease the burden of a 40+ game season.
"I've got four French teams going through to the quarter-finals and I suspect they will be the ones to beat," he said. "I believe there is a clear correlation between success and the ability to spend 11-12 million euros on your playing staff each year. The financial constraints that other teams must work under in terms of salary caps make it so much harder for them.
"French clubs also have the option of signing players of any nationality and may have 25 of them in their squad whereas the celtic sides for example are very much focused on being a stepping stone and springboard to their national sides. Munster may have the odd foreign signing, someone like Dougie Howlett, but more often than not there are 12 or 13 Irishmen in each side.
"There are only four teams in Ireland and they've never been overly keen about picking players based in England or abroad. [Leicester's] Geordan Murphy and [the Ospreys'] Tommy Bowe are exceptions. The free market French teams find themselves ensures that they are in the strongest position going into this tournament."
But that is not to say that France's clubs will get it all their own way this season. "There are some other really good sides in there," insists Greenwood. "I've always liked watching Cardiff, especially Xavier Rush, and I'm hoping they will make it through to the quarters. And I think Munster will scrape out of their group but won't win the whole thing."
The one thing going in the favour of Toulouse's rivals for the title may be the lure of lifting the Bouclier de Brennus. Such is the status of the French domestic title and the squad depth available to their leading sides, that the Heineken Cup may not take priority. That news will be welcomed by Toulon's Pool 3 rivals Munster, London Irish and Ospreys. An in-form Jonny Wilkinson is unlikely to be an ever-present as deep-pocketed owner Mourad Boudjellal continues his quest for the Holy Grail - the Top 14 crown.
"[Toulon coach]Philippe Saint-Andre has always had a rotation policy so you would suspect Jonny won't play in all six but the neutrals will be desperate for him to go up against everyone of their pool rivals," Greenwood said. "Ospreys have James Hook and Dan Biggar in their ranks while Munster have Ronan O'Gara so potentially you have some superb international clashes. We can just keep our fingers crossed he will be there every step of the way. But Toulon have a lot of talent available to them in an incredible squad."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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