Europe's best primed for battle
October 7, 2009
Can Leinster and Brian O'Driscoll make it back-to--back victories in Europe's premier competition? © Getty Images
Arix Viadana Bath Rugby Benetton Treviso Biarritz Brive Cardiff Blues Clermont Auvergne Dragons Edinburgh England France Glasgow Gloucester Rugby Harlequins Ireland Italy Leicester Tigers Leinster London Irish Munster Northampton Saints Ospreys Perpignan Sale Sharks Scarlets Scotland Stade Français Toulouse Ulster Wales
Arguably the world's greatest rugby tournament returns to centre stage this weekend with the opening round of matches in the 2009-10 Heineken Cup.
For many the season does not begin until Europe's best go head-to-head and rarely does the battle for the continental supremacy fail to disappoint in terms of entertainment and drama. Last season's epic brought us the first ever penalty shoot-out, the damaging 'Bloodgate' scandal and glory for Leinster and fans can expect a similar rollercoaster ride this time around.
France's best failed to claim a semi-final berth last season but with the Stade de France in Paris set to play host to the 2010 final we can expect the Top 14's finest to raise their game with the likes of Toulouse, Biarritz, Perpignan and Stade Francais looming large. Leinster will spearhead the Irish challenge while England will provide the maximum of seven contenders - led by Guinness Premiership champions and beaten two-time winners Leicester Tigers.
Wales have yet to lay claim to the Heineken Cup crown with Cardiff Blues coming up short last season in the semi-finals while the Scots would see an appearance in the last four a major step forward. Sadly for Italy, another harsh lesson awaits at the hands of their European neighbours.
Check out our Pool by Pool preview for the low-down on this season's competition.
Pool One: Benetton Treviso, Munster, Northampton Saints, Perpignan
The favourites: Munster
The arrival of Springboks centre Jean de Villiers and their outstanding Heineken Cup pedigree are two major factors in the Irish province's favour as they mount their latest assault on the European crown. But in Perpignan they face the reigning Top 14 champions who have begun the defence of their domestic title in impressive form.
Northampton have also caught the eye in the opening weeks of the season and may yet spring a surprise or two but Treviso are destined for an all-too-familiar hammering at the hands of their big-hitting rivals.
Pool Two: Biarritz, Glasgow Warriors, Gloucester, Newport Gwent Dragons
The favourites: Biarritz
Biarritz could well lead France's resurgence in the competition having shaken off their early season woes to underline their Top 14 title credentials. Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili are hitting form at the right time for the Basque club and they should power through their pool.
Glasgow have the weight of history against them but will be confident of adding to the notable scalp of Toulouse that they took last season while Gloucester continue to struggle leaving the door open for the in-form Dragons to put their case.
Pool Three: Clermont Auvergne, Leicester Tigers, Ospreys, Viadana
The favourites: Clermont Auvergne
Clermont Auvergne enter this season's Heineken Cup at the Top 14 summit and despite their legendary frailty on the domestic stage (having lost the 10 Top 14 Finals they have contested) they can boast two European successes in the Challenge Cup. Leicester have weathered the loss of some key players to grind out results in recent weeks but will need their big names for this step up.
Ospreys may have lost the services of Gavin Henson indefinitely but they can boast the formidable presence of All Black Jerry Collins in their ranks as they look to shake off their underachievers tag. And sadly it looks as if Viadana are here to just make up the number once again.
Pool Four: Bath, Edinburgh, Stade Francais, Ulster
The favourites: Stade Francais
Stade's Pool Four rivals would have welcomed their faltering start to the campaign and the departure of their coach Ewen McKenzie but would not have predicted the Parisians' stunning fight back since Jacques Delmas took the reins. Expect more garish shirts and the Top 14 big guns to progress.
Edinburgh look well-placed to add to their one quarter-final appearance but may find their way blocked by an in-form Ulster side. Bath are struggling but will be bolstered by the arrival of Luke Watson later this year.
Pool Five: Cardiff Blues, Harlequins, Sale Sharks, Toulouse
The favourites: Toulouse
Perennial title challengers Toulouse may not be setting the Top 14 alight and coach Guy Noves maybe bemoaning the referees but they know how to get the job done on the Heineken Cup stage.
The draw looked to be a testing one for the French giants but the subsequent form of the Blues, Quins and Sale will not be giving them restless nights. Quins can also expect to be the butt of more jokes on their travels in the wake of the 'Bloodgate' affair that over-shadowed their otherwise impressive campaign last season.
Pool Six: Brive, Leinster, London Irish, Scarlets
The favourites: Leinster
Leinster begin the defence of their crown in ominous form having stormed to the top of the Magners League. Most recently they sounded a warning to their title rivals by humbling Munster in an emphatic display at the RDS.
Their showdown with London Irish in the opening round has the makings of one of the games of the season with the Exiles having picked up where they left of last season in the Guinness Premiership. Brive and Scarlets are struggling for form but will no doubt play their part in deciding the destiny of this pool.