Rugby teams around Europe today learned who they will be facing in the pool stage of next season’s Heineken Cup. England and Ireland normally have six and three teams in the competition respectively. However, with Leinster winning the last Heineken Cup and Harlequins claiming its smaller cousin, the Challenge Cup, those numbers have increased to seven and four, with Connacht gaining entry as a result.
This will be Connacht’s first time in the competition, and boy have they got a hard road ahead of them. The three other combatants making up Pool Six are Gloucester, Harlequins and four-time Heineken Cup winners, Toulouse. With the recent form of the four teams, Connacht will almost unanimously be favourites to finish last, but the European showcase has a penchant for the surprising, so it’s far from written in the stars. Connacht will also salvage some hope from the acceleration at which Irish rugby is excelling. Munster and Leinster have claimed four of the last six tournaments, and Connacht will be hoping that it’s their turn to step up to the plate.
Speaking of champions, current trophy-holders, Leinster, have been drawn against Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier in Pool Three. Leinster fought back to win an inspiring victory in this year’s final against Northampton to emerge as winners of the tournament. Brian O’Driscoll will be hoping to show similar guile against smaller opposition in Pool Three, and carry over the momentum of the previous year’s competition. This is also the Irish province’s chance to win a third Heineken Cup in four years, which would then mean them overtaking fierce rivals, Munster, in titles accumulated.
Munster on the other hand will be expecting a complete change of pace compared with the 2010-11 Heineken Cup. For the first time in thirteen years, the team failed to progress past the group stage and had to make do with an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final place. Tony McGahan will be aiming at a complete revival of the squad this year, with some of the older faces perhaps not meeting the pedigree the club is usually used to.
David Wallace, Paul O’Connell and of course Ronan O’Gara will be some of the ‘Old Guard’ expected to lead from the front. However, it’s the likes of Keith Earls who will need to impress if the Red Army are to emulate the form of 2005-2008. The Magners League champions have been drawn in Pool One against Scarlets, Castres and Northampton Saints. Challenging competition yes, but one would expect Munster to progress on paper.
This season’s Guinness Premiership finalists, Leicester, will be put up against Aironi, Clermont Auvergne and an ever-improving Ulster. The Tigers had a decent run in 2010-11, and would argue that being beat by the eventual winners in the quarter-finals isn’t the worst way to exit. However Ulster too made the finals, making this a potentially exciting Pool, with the competition almost even across the board.
Cardiff Blues are another team looking for a turnaround in 2011-12. The team were dominated in Pool One last year by a dominant Northampton Saints, but will be hoping that next season’s group will do them more justice. They’ll have a familiar battle against Edinburgh who they met in the Pool phase in 2010-11, beating home and away. However Racing Metro 92 will provide a new competition and London Irish will undoubtedly be a tough a competition as any.
Finally, we have what is potentially the most entertaining pool of the lot. Pool Five has a pedigree of talent that is sure to produce a number of sterling matches. Biarritz Olympique, Ospreys, Saracens and Benetton Treviso is a combination of teams that will entertain any supporter to no end. Undoubtedly, on paper, Treviso will be the ones to take a bit of a thrashing against bigger opponents, but who doesn’t like a surprise?
Saracens are of course our current Guinness Premiership champions, and improve with every game with the potential to disrupt anyone, which they showed against Leicester in this year’s English final. Ospreys haven’t had the best of times lately, but arguably have the potential for fantastic rugby, as do Biarritz. My eyes are fixated on Pool Five, as I’m sure will many-a-supporter’s.
POOL ONE – Munster, Northampton Saints, Scarlets, Castres Olympique
POOL TWO – Cardiff Blues, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro 92
POOL THREE – Leinster, Bath Rugby, Glasgow Warriors, Montpellier
POOL FOUR – Leicester, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Aironi Rugby
POOL FIVE – Biarritz Olympique, Ospreys, Saracens, Benetton Treviso
POOL SIX – Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester Rugby, Connacht Rugby