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Graham Jenkins
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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum
Heineken Cup Preview
This is the time to shine
Graham Jenkins
October 6, 2010
A general view of the Heineken Cup, Heineken Cup - Paris launch, Paris, France, September 28, 2010
Who will lay claim to the sizeable Heineken Cup silverware this season? © Getty Images
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The build-up to Rugby World Cup 2011 is set to intensify this weekend with the start of the Heineken Cup - arguably the most important proving ground for those hoping to grace the sport's biggest stage next year.

The battle for European supremacy rarely fails to deliver in terms of drama, intensity and top class rugby and the prospect of a World Cup appearance looming at the end of what will be an epic season for the northern hemisphere's finest is sure to bring out the best in everyone. Such is the status of the competition in comparison to the battle for domestic glory across the continent that a poor showing for those on cusp of international inclusion may well mean obscurity and the end to any hopes of heading to New Zealand.

Toulouse laid claim to their fourth Heineken Cup crown last season with victory over Biarritz in an all-French final staged at the Stade de France in Paris. The unmistakable Gallic-flavour to that occasion was a fitting finale to a tournament dominated by Top 14 clubs, who provided four of the quarter-finalists. The Premiership's failure to provide more than just one team in the last eight - Northampton - prompted fresh concerns about their ability to compete with their deep-pocketed rivals across the Channel but just a year before England's top flight boasted three quarter-finalists to the Top 14's one. That debate is set to continue this year with another mouth-watering line-up primed for battle.

Perennial title challengers Toulouse will again be among the favourites not only due to their enviable strength in depth but because the draw has been kind to them. European also-rans Glasgow and the Dragons await in Pool 6 along with an out-of-sorts London Wasps who are currently a far cry from the side that claimed Europe's biggest prize in 2004 and 2007.

Clermont Auvergne's reward for finally claiming the Top 14 crown last season is a place in obligatory 'group of death'. The smart money was heading Les Jaunards' way not so long ago in the belief that having shrugged the Bouclier de Brennus monkey from their back they would make a serious play for the H-Cup crown. But if that is to be the case then they are going to have to do it the hard way. Pool 2 is shaping up as an epic battle with 2009 champions Leinster, current Top 14 leaders Racing Metro and would-be English giants Saracens set to ensure a feast for fans and pundits alike.

Many of Europe's leading lights will be grateful for having dodged a bullet with that one - except perhaps those facing an equally demanding schedule in Pool 3. The men of Munster headline the group but if they are to qualify for the knock out stages for a 13th successive time they are going to have to take some notable scalps. London Irish are their first opponents and are in ominous form having stormed to the top of the Premiership table after embracing the latest law interpretations to devastating effect. A more familiar foe awaits in the form of Magners League rivals Ospreys, who claimed a league double over their Irish rivals last season but were on the wrong end of a Thomond Park defeat last month.

Completing what is if not a second 'group of death' then at least a 'pool of pain', are big-spending Toulon. Like fellow Top 14 side Racing Metro, Le Toulonnais are newcomers to the competition having completed the latest stage owner Mourad Boudjellal's master plan by securing their place amongst Europe's elite last season. And such is the passion of the Stade Mayol faithful that regardless of the fortunes of their star-studded side they are sure to make a sizeable impression on the competition.

 
"Many of Europe's leading lights will be grateful for having dodged a bullet with that one - except perhaps those facing an equally demanding schedule in Pool 3."
 

The concentration of talent elsewhere has opened the door for England's other combatants but they will not get an easy ride. A few weeks ago the reigning Premiership champions and two-time Heineken Cup winners Leicester looked to have a favourable draw but injuries and a rocky start to the season have sown the seeds of doubt. Now Magners League new boys Treviso loom large having already recorded three wins this season while French side Perpignan will no doubt ooze class again.

The task facing Northampton looks a little easier with both Castres and Edinburgh struggling for from in the Top 14 and Magners respectively but in Cardiff Blues they have a side not only primed for action thanks to four wins out of five in the league this season but also with a thirst for euro success following their Amlin Challenge Cup triumph last season.

Although arguably not packing the class evident elsewhere, the Pool 4 battle also looks like it may go down to the wire. Beaten finalists last season, Biarritz may be determined to go one better this term but Irish province Ulster may pack the biggest punch. The door is also open for Bath should they rediscover their form with win-less Aironi in the firing line.

The introduction of new faces Racing Metro and Toulon adds to an already abundant talent pool with only the demands of a 40+ game season likely to deny us the spectacle of some of the world's best players squaring up. Blinded by the allure of the Top 14 crown and afforded the luxury of larger squads than their euro rivals, the fear is France's leading sides could undermine the competition in a way infinitely more damaging than a team-bonding trip to a beer festival. But surely Toulon would not deny the Munster faithful the chance to watch Jonny Wilkinson in action?

We can only hope that the battle for the Heineken Cup crown is equally beguiling and the game's best are given the chance to whet our collective appetite for bigger things to come.

Predicted quarter-finalists:
Northampton
Clermont Auvergne
London Irish
Ulster
Leicester
Toulouse
Cardiff Blues
Munster

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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