Our neck on the line
October 7, 2010
The Heineken Cup season kicks-off on Friday © Getty Images
The Heineken Cup season is upon us. After several minutes of excitable giggling at the ESPNscrum office we settled in to pluck our predictions for this season's tournament from the ether with the result being our latest Scrum Seven.
There's a thrilling season ahead of us - packed full of thrilling games, heartache and glory - bring it on.
A medium pace opening from the new boys
France's new breed are set for their Heineken Cup bow and they bring with them the galaxy of stars expected of two of the world's most swaggeringly wealthy clubs. In the blue and white of Racing Metro we can marvel at Argentina's Juan Martin-Hernandez, equalled only by Dan Carter and Quade Cooper for invention, Lionel Nallet and Sebastien Chabal. Toulon boast Jonny Wilkinson, George Smith and Carl Hayman and could likely field two competitive sides for any game. The key question remains whether or not they will give their Heineken Cup bid the beans due to the prestige associated with the French title. In all likelihood they will mix and match in classic French style - strong at home and weak away - but we can hope to see some respect for the tournament. Clermont Auvergne could be the French bolters as a result - especially given their Top 14 win last season. They're in a hell of a group, though.
Wales' wait to continue
If asked to choose the easiest option between cleaning a Commonwealth Games accommodation block and winning the Ospreys' group in the Heineken Cup, many would already be pulling on the marigolds. As a result of their neighbours' being drawn alongside Munster, Toulon and London Irish, Cardiff Blues have been tipped in many quarters as the Welsh hope for the tournament. Theirs is a squad built on Kiwi grit and a sprinkling of Welsh flair, but governed by the uber conservative Dan Parks they should boast a new level of tactical nous as they look to navigate a relatively simple group. Blues fans everywhere will be groaning when looking at away fixtures at Northampton and Castres however, and there remains a nagging suspicion that another season of flattering to deceive awaits the Amlin Challenge Cup champions.
Toulouse to set an example
The H-Cup is big business in Toulouse, if not in the rest of France. Guy Noves views European competition as a major part of his side's culture and will expect no half measures from a star-studded squad in a straightforward group. Glasgow and the Dragons, while both improving sides, will struggle to dent their armoury. The Warriors will have happy memories of a famous win a couple of seasons ago to call on but lightning rarely strikes twice. Wasps meanwhile are the dark horses of the group. Peculiarly their worry may not be beating Toulouse but ensuring that they are switched on for their trips to Glasgow and Newport - their away form has often been suspect in recent seasons.
Ulster to ruffle the establishment's feathers
Our resident Ireland expert Hugh Farrelly has already tipped Ulster to shake up the foundation of Irish rugby this season and it's easy to see where he's coming from. Their Magners League season has so far been one to savour, with power up front matched with plenty of willing runners in the backs. No team will fancy going to Ravenhill and Bath, Biarritz and Aironi represent a manageable task for Stephen Ferris, Ruan Pienaar and company. Munster and Leinster will compete as they always do but have ferociously difficult groups. The luck of the draw could have favoured their less illustrious neighbours on this occasion.
Tigers to progress and stop the whining
While it is galling for many to hear gripes about money emanating from the world's richest rugby nation, the English clubs do have a point about the restraining nature of the Premiership's salary cap when it comes to taking on the might of France. Nevertheless, this season should see a marked improvement from certain quarters, notably Leicester. If they can overcome their current injury problems and a tough early trip to Treviso then they should progress. The Scarlets are improving but do still retain a soft centre while Perpignan are one of the tournament's biggest disappointments year on year, where the effort of their vociferous home fans is rarely matched by a powerful playing squad.
Five-point bankers to bite back
In previous seasons the Italian sides have provided quarter-final progress for a number of sides given their status as cannon-fodder. There will be no easy bonus-points on the road to Treviso this year, just ask the Scarlets, Dragons and Leinster, who have already been beaten at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo. Aironi are more of a mystery and are yet to win in the Magners League - their performances have alternated between determined and naïve - but any side that runs Munster close at Thomond Park is worth keeping an eye out for.
The new boys to make a splash
Aside from Hernandez and Smith there will also be high-profile bows for a number of exciting talents this season. Pienaar will be a major boost to Ulster at scrum-half, while the Irish side will also be calling on former Springboks Pedrie Wannenburg and Johann Muller. At Clermont, mercurial All Black No.8 Sione Lauaki has been setting tongues wagging already this season while Thomas Waldrom's work-rate will be a boon for Leicester come wet and windy December.The signing of the season may be in Cardiff however, with the retention of No.8 Xavier Rush vital to their push for honours.
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