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Heineken Cup
Weekend preview: Toulon the team to beat
Tom Hamilton
October 11, 2013
Will Toulon be one of the last winners of the Heineken Cup as we know it? © Getty Images
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After months of tit-for-tat posturing between the clubs, unions and the various stakeholders which make up Europe's best club tournament we are finally at a stage where boardroom battles can be put to one side as the players do the talking on the field. The 19th, and possible last, Heineken Cup kicks off on Friday with Ulster hosting Leicester the eye-catching tie of the opening night.

Come Saturday, there are matches in Italy, Scotland, England, Wales and France and on Sunday it is the champions turn to kick-off their campaign with Toulon hosting in-form Glasgow Warriors.

Ahead of the first round of action, we pick out some key talking points ahead of round one of the 2013-14 competition.

In form

The familiar names will be bounded around as potential tournament-winners before the first ball is kicked in anger and the three leagues which make up the Heineken Cup have a familiar look at present. In the Aviva Premiership, Saracens are the runaway side at the moment with East Midlands duo Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints hot on their heels. Across the Channel in France, the top of the league is fairly congested but Montpellier are currently sitting pretty at the summit with Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne all in the top five.

Team News

  • For Ulster, Paul Marshall gets the nod ahead of Ruan Pienaar
  • Jonathan Sexton starts at fly-half for Racing Metro despite rumours he was going to be dropped.
  • Tom James misses out for Exeter after rolling his ankle in training.
  • Ugo Monye sidelined for Harlequins' match against Scarlets.
  • Jimmy Gopperth gets the nod ahead of Ian Madigan for Leinster.
  • Peter O'Mahony misses out for Munster due to concussion.
  • Saints hand Kahn Fotuali'i is at No.9 for Northampton while Ken Pisi also starts.
  • For a breakdown of all the key stats - read the Number Crunch

And in the RaboDirect PRO12, Scottish side Glasgow Warriors are setting the pace with Munster and Ospreys within touching distance. All 11 are in action this weekend and will look to take their form on to the European stage.

Toulon will be the team to beat with their plethora of talent while Montpellier could do some damage. Saracens will also harbour hopes of going one further and reaching the final.

Out of form

It's a familiar tale of the Italian sides struggling in the PRO12 while Edinburgh are also enduring a dreadful run of form and are 11th in the Celtic League. In the Aviva Premiership, both Gloucester and Harlequins have had stuttering starts to their respective campaigns and will welcome the chance to put the English league to one side and focus on the European stage.

In France, Top 14 champions Castres are also playing below expectation and suffered a 34-0 hiding at the hands of Brive at the weekend. Amid rumours of Rory Kockott attracting interest from Toulon and both Brice Dulin and Antonie Claassen are on the radar of Racing Metro.

Tie of the round

There are a few belting ties in the opening round of the Heineken Cup but for us, Toulon's game against Glasgow on Sunday should be a fantastic match. Glasgow are flying high in the PRO12 while Toulon are still bedding in a host of famous faces with Ali Williams, Martin Castogiovanni and Drew Mitchell all in the mix to face the Warriors.

For Glasgow, this will be a real test of where they are at the moment. Unbeaten in the PRO12, they have looked solid but Toulon will be an altogether different proposition.

Trivia

  • Though reigning league champions Leinster and Ospreys are the two most recent winners of the Pro12 their match on Saturday will be their first-ever Heineken Cup meeting.
  • Exeter Chiefs will welcome Cardiff Blues to Sandy Park on Sunday knowing their Welsh opponents averaged an impressive 109 tackles per game in last season's Heineken Cup, the second highest in the competition.
  • The Glasgow Warriors have lost three times as many games (18) against French clubs as they have won (six) in this competition, drawing two.

Stats

  • Beware the boot of Jonny Wilkinson. He is currently the second top points scorer in the Top 14 with Jonny Sexton third.
  • Perpignan's Sofiane Guitoune is leading the try-scoring charts in France with six. In the PRO12, Mike Allen, Alex Cuthbert, Ludovico Nitoglia and Eli Walker are all on three. And over in the Premiership, David Strettle is the man at the top of the tree with four.

Betting

It's a good time to be having a punt at the moment with the top try-scorer and top points scorer markets both open. George North is 16/1 to be top of the try-scoring charts with bet365 while Wesley Fofana is at 14/1. If you fancy an outside bet, then do not go for Tom Croft who is likely to miss the whole season and is at 100/1.

Winners wise, Toulon are favourites at 7/2 while Saracens at 7/1 looks a good price.

Prediction

On Friday night, there will be wins for Ulster, Saracens and Toulouse. Come Saturday, Montpellier, Munster, Northampton, Harlequins, Perpignan and Ospreys will triumph. On Sunday, Exeter Chiefs, Toulon and Clermont Auvergne will be victorious. Any chance of upsets look slim.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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