The most open Heineken Cup in years
November 11, 2011
Leinster defeated Northampton to lift the Heineken Cup last season © Getty Images
ESPNscrum casts its eye over the contenders for this year's Heineken Cup and with a host of international talent on show it is one of the most open tournaments in recent years.
The fight to progress from Pool 1 is sure to be fierce, with last season's runners-up Northampton Saints drawn alongside Irish giants Munster, as well as the Scarlets and Castres. Saints stormed the group stages last season with six victories from six - in a pool that also included Castres - before they reached the final against Leinster.
However, Saints, who are still set to be among the favourites for the trophy, are unlikely to have such a smooth path this year. Munster will be determined to bounce back from last season's showing when the two-time champions fell at the first hurdle for the first time in 12 seasons. And Northampton will remember losing to Munster twice - in the pool and quarter-final stages - at Thomond Park during the 2009/10 season.
Those two teams will be favourites to reach the quarter finals but Castres, who recorded just two wins in the pool stages last season, are riding high in the French Top 14 table, while the Scarlets proved they are more than capable of pulling off big wins in Europe with an opening-round victory over Perpignan last season.
This is one of the toughest groups to call. None of these sides reached the last eight in last season's competition, with Edinburgh and London Irish finishing bottom of their respective groups and Cardiff Blues and Racing Metro also coming up well short of qualification.
Irish, Cardiff and Racing Metro are all towards the higher reaches of their respective domestic tables and anyone of those teams could progress to the quarters. Racing Metro secured wins over Saracens and Clermont Auvergne in last season's competition, but were let down by their home form. While London Irish are showing some signs of reaching the levels of a few seasons ago, Cardiff Blues will be buoyed by the form of Welsh stars Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton.
Edinburgh could struggle again this season and their current form in the RaboDirect Pro12 offers little hope for anything other than a tough campaign.
Reigning champions Leinster, who qualified from by far the toughest pool last year, have a favourable draw and will be overwhelming favourites to progress from Pool 3.
Their biggest threat is set to come from Bath. But despite some glimmers of development under Sir Ian McGeechan, Bath have yet to convince that they are ready to mix it with Europe's elite once again. The addition of World Cup winner Stephen Donald should add some more experience and quality. But their squad still looks light for contending over a gruelling schedule.
Montpellier reached the French Top 14 final last season to qualify for this season's Heineken Cup. But their start to this season has seen them pick up just two wins in nine matches, which is unlikely to concern Europe's reigning champions. Glasgow, who finished behind Toulouse and Wasps in the pool stages last season, have made a strong start to the Pro12 season. But they are unlikely to punch heavier than bloodying a few noses.
Clermont Auvergne have flirted with Heineken Cup glory in the past but are yet to make it past the quarter-final stage in the competition. But they are in their centenary year and have bolstered their squad with some well known luminaries. Nathan Hines, David Skrela, Regan King and Lee Byrne have all arrived and they look set to impress in a Pool which also sees Leicester Tigers, Ulster and Aironi hoping to make an impact.
The Tigers have won just three matches all season and struggled while their World Cup stars were in New Zealand. But they have a good record in the tournament having won two Heineken Cups in the past and with the likes of Toby Flood, Alex Tuilagi and Martin Castrogiovanni in their ranks they can mix it with the best of them on their day.
And Ulster will also back themselves to reach the knockout stages after falling to the Northampton Saints in last year's quarter-finals. Aironi will struggle against the three European veterans but caused one of the all-time upsets last season when they beat Biarritz 28-27 in Italy.
Last season's Heineken Cup quarter-finalists Biarritz are languishing at the foot of the Top 14 but still possess enough talent to upset the form book and finish top of a pool which sees them vie with Ospreys, Aviva Premiership champions Saracens and Treviso. With their World Cup stars in New Zealand, Biarritz have managed just one win this season but now have players such as Imanol Harinordoquy, Damien Traille and Dimitri Yachvili back in their red and white shirts.
But they face a tough ask to qualify from a pool where Saracens, who will play Biarritz in Cape Town, look to be favourites. They have recruited proven talent in the close season in the guise of John Smit, Charlie Hodgson and Joe Maddock and, with an impressive group of youngsters coming through the ranks, they will look to add Europe's biggest prize to their mantelpiece.
The Ospreys have promised much in the past but have failed to deliver, with three quarter-finals to their name. And they have undergone a huge clearout over the summer with a host of well-known figures leaving the Liberty Stadium to be replaced with a mix of youth and experience. However, they are a far cry from the 'Galactico' image previously associated with the club. Treviso have performed well in the Pro12 thus far and will look to perhaps upset one of the big three in the group if given the opportunity.
Unbeaten Premiership outfit Harlequins are tearing up the record books in their domestic league and in Nick Evans they have a player capable of turning a match and potentially a tournament. Since their high-profile quarter-final exit against Leinster in 2009, they have taken the Amlin Challenge Cup last season in dramatic fashion and will hope to make an impact back on Europe's biggest stage.
But in their way lie Top 14 champions Toulouse. The French giants are riding high in the French league and have recruited impressively in the close-season, bringing in arguably the best tight-head in world rugby in the guise of Gurthro Steenkamp alongside mercurial Kiwi back Luke McAlister and the talented Luke Burgess. They know what it takes to win the Heineken Cup, having done so on three occasions in the past, and will eye another title this year.
Gloucester are robust at home in front of the Shed but have failed to cut it in the Heineken Cup with just one semi-final to their name - back in 2001 against Leicester Tigers. Tournament debutants Connacht complete the Pool Six line-up. The Irish side will try and find their feet in the tournament this year and will relish the chance to try their hand against the best Europe has on offer.
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