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Tom Hamilton
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Tom Hamilton was brought up underneath the stands of the Recreation Ground and joined ESPN in 2011. He is now Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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Heineken Cup
European giants eye place in history
Tom Hamilton
October 10, 2012
Saracens' Charlie Hodgson stretches the London Welsh defence, London Welsh v Saracens, Aviva Premiership, Kassam Stadium, Oxford, England, October 7, 2012.
Saracens will look to Charlie Hodgson to guide them into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup © Getty Images
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Tournaments/Tours: Heineken Cup

Another season of Heineken Cup rugby is nearly upon us and although the battle to shape the future of the tournament is currently dominating the news agenda, there will be 24 teams looking to write their own headlines when the competition kicks off this weekend.

With this in mind, ESPNscrum looks at the six groups, assesses the teams and singles out a player worth keeping an eye on.

Pool 1

Teams: Saracens, Racing Metro, Munster, Edinburgh

Form: Edinburgh were the surprise package of last season's tournament and progressed to the semi-finals of the competition only to run into eventual finalists Ulster. But while they turn it on on the European stage (they recorded home and away victories over fellow Pool 1 side Racing Metro last year) they traditionally struggle in the RaboDirect PRO12. They have recorded just two wins from six and lost to Treviso at the weekend. Saracens have started the 2012-13 campaign in usual fashion - a series of unattractive wins. They overcame the threat of London Welsh at the weekend with fly-half Charlie Hodgson contributing all of their points.

Munster will always be there or thereabouts when it comes to the Heineken Cup. Under the new regime of Rob Penney, they have had a tentative start to the PRO12 season with three wins from six and they fell to their Irish rivals Leinster on Saturday. But they possess Ronan O'Gara in their ranks - a man who can change the game in the blink of an eye. And then there's Racing Metro - complete with former Bath half-back Olly Barkley. They will be counting down the days until they can get their Argentinian contingent back -Juan Martin Hernandez, Alvaro Galindo, Juan Pablo Orlandi and Juan Imhoff have been turning out in the Rugby Championship - and similar to Munster, they have had a conservative start to the new season with four wins from eight in the Top 14 Orange.

Player to Watch: Edinburgh's Tim Visser has already got eight tries this season for Edinburgh - this makes up half of their 16-try total. He's now a certified Scottish international and could well play for the British & Irish Lions next summer. But in the mean time, he will focus on performing well for his club side in the Cup.

Prediction: It would take a brave individual to call the winner of this pool but Saracens should progress to the quarter-finals of the tournament with Munster hot on their heels.

Pool 2

Toulouse's Timoci Matanavou watches on, Harlequins v Toulouse, Heineken Cup, Twickenham Stoop, London, December 9, 2011
Toulouse's Timoci Matanavou will look to cause some havoc this year © PA Photos
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Teams: Toulouse, Ospreys, Leicester Tigers, Treviso

Form: Toulouse will feel they have a point to prove in this year's competition after losing at the quarter-final stage of the tournament last year to Edinburgh. And they have started the 2012-13 Top 14 season well and sit in second with six wins from their eight games. But they will not have it easy against the Tigers. Leicester failed to progress from their group last year which featured a similar line up to this season's Pool with the Tigers coming up against French giants Clermont, PRO12 side Ospreys and Italians Aironi. But losses on the road to Clermont and Ulster meant they finished behind their Top 14 and PRO12 counterparts. But they are nicely positioned in the Premiership in third and will hope for better fortunes this time around.

The Ospreys started the 2012-13 season woefully with no wins in their opening three games. But they have stopped the rot and have since won three on the bounce so they will hope to take that sort of form into the competition. Treviso will never trouble the latter stages of the tournament but they recorded a solid win over Edinburgh on Friday, have already beaten the Ospreys this year and will look to make some more waves in the Pool stages.

Player to Watch: Toulouse's Christopher Tolofua is a future star. Aged just 18, he has already played for France where he became just the fifth French player to make his debut for the national side while in his teenage years. William Servat left big boots to fill at Toulouse in the hooker department but Tolofua has filled those with aplomb and turns out for the side week in week out.

Prediction: Toulouse should take the pool with Leicester a close second. Treviso will pick up a win in one of their six matches with the Ospreys finishing third in the pool.

Pool 3

Biarritz lock Eric Lund celebrates with some fans, Toulon v Biarritz, Amlin Challenge Cup final, Twickenham Stoop, London, England, May 18, 2012
Biarritz lifted the Amlin Challenge Cup in May 2012 © Getty Images
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Teams: Biarritz, Connacht, Harlequins, Zebre

Form: Reigning Premiership champions Harlequins fell to Exeter at the weekend and have now suffered two defeats on the bounce. They failed to qualify from their Heineken Cup group last season with Connacht proving to be the thorn in their side with a dramatic 9-8 win in Galway in the final match of the Pool stage. But they are currently second in the Premiership and boss Conor O'Shea has made all the right noises about Harlequins posing a threat in the latter stages of the tournament.

Biarritz will probably be the greatest test they face with the Top 14 giants qualifying for the tournament after taking the 2012 Amlin Challenge Cup. With a strong French contingent alongside some international flair in the guise of Iain Balshaw and Taku Ngwenya, Biarritz will be eyeing the quarter-final stages of the tournament. But they will go into their match with Quins on Saturday on the back of a heavy defeat to Top 14 big spenders Toulon at the weekend.

Connacht played in their first season of Heineken Cup rugby last term and managed to pick up one win - against Pool 3 rivals Quins. They have won just two matches in this season's PRO12 so stand a chance of realistically picking up the odd scalp here and there but will not reach the knockouts. And Zebre, who are in their first season of existence let alone Heineken Cup rugby are yet to win a match in this season's PRO12 and have conceded 164 points in the process.

Player to Watch: Danny Care has had a rocky 12 months on and off the field but he is showing signs of being back to his Test best. On Europe's biggest stage, alongside arguably the best fly-half in the northern hemisphere Nick Evans, Care will be like a coiled spring. Expect him to shine throughout the pool stage and do his England - and potentially British & Irish Lions - claims a world of good.

Prediction: Harlequins should win the pool with Biarritz qualifying for the quarter-finals in one of the two best runners-up spots on offer.

Pool 4

Glasgow Warriors' Josh Strauss in his new surroundings, Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow, September 26, 2012
Josh Strauss will hope to impress in this season's tournament © PA Photos
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Teams: Ulster, Northampton Saints, Glasgow Warriors, Castres

Form: Ulster are top of the tree in the PRO12 with five wins from five. They are still recovering from the tragic loss of Nevin Spence but have recorded two wins from two since the news of Spence's untimely death broke. They will have Ruan Pienaar back in the mix after his Rugby Championship exploits and also boast Tommy Bowe in their ranks with the Ireland winger back at Ravenhill for his second spell. But while Ulster are the form side in the PRO12, they will come up against the Saints who have recorded five wins from six in the Premiership.

England fullback Ben Foden will miss the early stages of the competition through injury but they still have plenty of strength in depth to pose a real threat. Jim Mallinder's side suffered the heartbreak of a Heineken Cup final loss back in 2011 but they have matured since then and will be hopeful of progressing through their Pool. Castres are a relatively unknown quantity - while they are always there or there abouts in the Top 14, they normally opt for rotation in the Heineken Cup. If they back their first choice XV throughout the competition then they could surprise a few teams - they are currently sixth in the Top 14.

Glasgow would have watched Edinburgh's journey to the semi-finals of last year's tournament enviously and will hope to create some of their own history this year. They are third in the PRO12 with four wins from six and could cause the favourites Ulster and the Saints some difficulty.

Player to Watch: Glasgow's Josh Strauss could well be the signing of the PRO12 season. He joined the Warriors from Super Rugby side the Lions back in September with a reputation as one of the southern hemisphere's most under-rated operators. He has started at No.8 and blindside for the Warriors and alongside John Barclay and Chris Fusaro in their back-row, Strauss could make a sizeable dent in this year's Heineken Cup.

Prediction: Ulster should take the Pool with the Saints vying for one of the best runners-up spots but we think Northampton will have to be content with a spot in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarters.

Pool 5

Exeter captain Tom Hayes and head coach Rob Baxter, Heineken Cup season launch, London, England, October 1, 2012
Exeter Chiefs will play their first season of Heineken Cup rugby this term © Getty Images
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Teams: Scarlets, Leinster, Exeter Chiefs, Clermont Auvergne

Form: Leinster will be the favourites to progress from the group having won the last two Heineken Cups. And they have started the 2012-13 season with four wins from six in the PRO12. But they are past masters of turning on form for the Heineken Cup and they will be the team to beat this year. And they have been handed a tough draw. Clermont were knocked out of the Heineken Cup in the semi-finals of last year's tournament with Pool 5 rivals Leinster dispatching them and will look to make amends this year. They fell to Castres on Friday evening but sit third in the Top 14 with six wins from eight.

The Scarlets have undergone huge change over the summer with coach Nigel Davies departing for pastures new and a large number of their pack also relocating. But they have started the new season in spectacular fashion under Simon Easterby. They sit second in the PRO12 with four wins from six and will look to take that form into the competition.

And then there's Exeter. They have been a breath of fresh air in the Premiership and having spent just two seasons in England's top flight, are now set to embark on the European stage. It's hard to foresee exactly how Exeter will do in the Heineken Cup but regardless of their eventual wins to games ratio, they will make some headlines along the way. Exeter have also had the perfect preparation for their match with Leinster on Saturday - they overcame Premiership champions Harlequins at the weekend.

Player to Watch: Andrew Fenby and George North have both scored five tries in this season's PRO12 for the Scarlets and they will be hoping to get plenty of ball throughout the campaign for the Welsh region.

Prediction: It is the group of death and it is too close to call between Leinster and Clermont for the Pool title. Expect both to be in the knockout stages of the tournament.

Pool 6

Toulon's Steffon Armitage takes the game to Racing Metro, Racing Metro v Toulon, Top 14 Orange, Yves du Manoir Stadium, France, August 25, 2012
Toulon will take the game to Pool 6 © Getty Images
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Teams: Toulon, Sale Sharks, Montpellier, Cardiff Blues

Form: Toulon fell in the finalof the Amlin Challenge Cup last season and then lost to Toulouse in the Top 14 finale. But they have started this campaign with a new steely-eyed determination. They have lost just once in the French top flight in the current campaign and that came away at Toulouse with a 'second-string side'. But when it comes to Toulon, even when they give the likes of Matt Giteau and Jonny Wilkinson the weekend off, they have a myriad of players to pick from.

They will come up against fellow Top 14 pretenders Montpellier in Pool 6. Even without their Pumas contingent, Montpellier have started the season well with five wins from three but it is Toulon who are setting the benchmark. Cardiff reached the quarter-finals of last year's tournament but they were blown away by Leinster who downed the Welsh side 34-3. They lost at home to Glasgow at the weekend and sit seventh in the PRO12 with three wins from six.

The Pool is completed by Sale. Despite bolstering their side pre-season with Richie Gray and Danny Cipriani, they are winless at the foot of the Premiership. They are likely to treat the tournament as an opportunity to regroup so expect to see some tinkering in their squad selection.

Player to Watch: Chris Masoe has been one of the Top 14's premier back-rowers since his switch to Castres from the Hurricanes back in 2008 and he is now lining up for Toulon. He has started six of their eight games so far and is yet to experience a loss in the red and black of Toulon.

Prediction: Toulon will qualify with six wins from six...if they take the tournament seriously.

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