Taking to the European stage
October 8, 2009
Andy Powell needs to make waves in Europe this season © Getty Images
Joe Bearman Antonie Claassen Jean de Villiers Ben Foden Louis Picamoles Andy Powell Sailosi Tagicakibau
Heineken Cup fever is set to take hold, with the thrills and spills produced by the elite sides from England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy set to decorate a new European canvas.
The final, to be staged at the Stade de France in Paris, will no doubt be a riot of colour and spectacle but there will be plenty of twists and turns before May's showpiece. In a competition that creates new heroes and villains every season, we run through the players you should be looking out for in our latest Scrum Seven.
Ben Foden - Northampton Saints
Is he a scrum-half or is he a fullback? His short international career for England so far has encompassed a few minutes at No.9 against Italy last season, but with injury to Delon Armitage seemingly opening the door to several would-be fullbacks for the Novermber internationals then Foden's opening Heineken Cup salvo is hugely important.
The Saints take on the heavyweight challenge of Munster at Franklin's Gardens in their first game, with Foden's reputation as one of the Premiership's most elusive runners yet to be tested to the full on the European stage. He'll want to put down a marker and move away from 'potential' to 'genuine' talent. Munster will be hoping he finishes the game where he started, stuck between stations.
Jean de Villiers - Munster
Arriving in Limerick on the back of South Africa's crushing march to the Tri-Nations title, De Villiers carries with him a huge weight of expectation. The finest inside-centre in the world is quite a mantle and one that he will have to live up to in Europe if Munster are to regain their swagger following a humbling 30-0 loss to fierce rivals Leinster in the Magners League last weekend.
Known as the 'King of the intercept' his game is far more than that. Intelligent, quick and experienced he's the sort of character you'd want on your side as you attempt to take points away from Top 14 champions Perpignan in their bear-pit of a home, the Stade Aime Giral.
Andy Powell - Cardiff Blues
As breakthrough seasons go, Cardiff Blues duo Andy Powell and Leigh Halfpenny had a fairly good run last time out. Both went from Wales debuts in November to Lions tours in May, with Cardiff Blues' first silverware, the Anglo-Welsh Cup, and a Heineken Cup semi-final chucked in for good measure.
Powell's ascent to the top was all the more surprising following several injury-plagued years and he is yet to repeat his form from Wales' November series. His opportunity in the Blues side came at the expense of the injured Xavier Rush and he has a shot alongside the Kiwi giant this season.
On his day, with his bread and butter being breaking away from the fringes, Powell can be world class. After injuries ruled out Martyn Williams, Gethin Jenkins, Ma'ama Molitika and Rush, Powell needs to stand up and be counted.
Louis Picamoles - Toulouse
Plucked from relative obscurity to make his France debut in the 2008 Six Nations alongside his Montpellier team-mates Francois Trinh-Duc and Fulgence Ouedraogo, Picamoles jumped ship over the summer and joined three-times Heineken Cup-winners Toulouse.
Playing alongside experienced back-rowers Thierry Dusautoir and Yannick Nyanga, Picamoles has been a raging bull at the base of the scrum so far this season. Toulouse threw off the shackles of the their recent try-drought against Picamoles' former employers, thanks in part to his rampaging contribution.
Joe Bearman - Newport Gwent Dragons
The Dragons may be one of the Heineken Cup's smallest names, but only a fool would underestimate them this season. After a start to their Magners League campaign that has so far drawn plenty of plaudits, the Dragons are the form side in Wales and will not fear Biarritz, Gloucester and Glasgow at their Rodney Parade home.
A team based on hard work and willingness to play for one another, the Dragons could ruffle a few feathers. In their back-row there is an interesting sub-plot, with No.8 Joe Bearman on the radar of Wales coach Warren Gatland.
Bearman, born in Cornwall, has qualified through residency and could step in to the international fold in November. He's big, athletic and committed and needs a big showing at a level not too far removed from Test matches. Watch this space.
Antonie Claassen - Brive
Brive have been away for a long time. The 1998 champions return in a group alongside champions Leinster, London Irish and the Scarlets. They boast plenty of international talent among their playing ranks, with England's injured centre Riki Flutey, Jamie Noon, Shaun Perry, Andy Goode and Steve Thompson all plying their trade with the club.
Recently waves were made when France coach Marc Liveremont announced that he would consider relaxing his policy of selecting foreign players for international duty. The name that has made him reconsider is that of Brive's South African flanker Antonie Claassen. Still under 25, Claassen has the complete package of pace, power and aggression, all wrapped up under a hairdo and sweatband that recalls a certain racquet-smashing tennis player.
He won't have qualified in time for the November internationals, but come February and the Six Nations it might be handy to have a couple of high-profile games against the reigning champions under your belt.
Sailosi Tagicakibau - London Irish
The lightning Samoan's last Heineken Cup outing involved skinning Toulouse's Cedric Heymans and Maxime Medard to score in the 2008 semi-final at Twickenham, a highlight of an otherwise devastating day for the Exiles.
So far this season he has notched six tries in Premiership action with his team leading the way in terms of enterprising back play. In a tough group they will need all of his finishing prowess, but at this early stage then they are a decent outside bet. Their explosive backline has been ticking and Tagicakibau will have eyes on a few more tries for his own personal highlights reel.
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham
"These little deft touches, the nuances O'Driscoll has perfected are what Ireland will miss most." Tom Hamilton on Brian O'Driscoll's final Test in Dublin
After Brian O'Driscoll's emotional final Ireland appearance on home soil, and seeing the Six Nations boil down to a three-horse race, we bring you the Weekend in PIctures
Last year's thrashing at the hands of Wales was not the first time England have fallen to their rivals. Scrum Sevens looks at whether they have bounced back the following year