THOSE rugby enthusiasts out there must feel that all their birthdays have come at once because, no sooner has the World Cup been put to bed, than European fans wake up to the imminent prospect of the Heineken Cup.
It might be as well to avoid any blind optimists because the true glory of this contest is better savoured without any residual bitterness from the annual agonising over Scotland’s noted lack of success. The current Murrayfield administration has at least provided funds for the pro team coaches to sign up key players relatively early in the day, which is an indication that they will prioritise the pro teams.
If Glasgow were in Edinburgh’s group we’d be tempted to put our finger to the wind and divine the faintest possibility of a Scottish qualifier come the spring. Instead the Warriors face the stiffest of competition from the current European champions Leinster, while Edinburgh’s lowly league standing suggests they lack the wherewithal to take advantage of a relatively weak Pool 2.
The capital club are lightweight up front and, while the backline is exciting, it is also hopelessly inexperienced. Clubs will watch last year’s video of how Northampton, after playing expansive rugby for 40 minutes, shut up shop in the second half to deny Edinburgh a famous win.
Glasgow field a stuffy, workmanlike set of forwards who won’t be bullied by many in the European playground but their problems lie elsewhere. The club has lost their best two attacking threats in Max Evans, who got bored waiting for Murrayfield to OK a new offer, and DTH van der Merwe, who injured his shoulder in the World Cup. Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg are quick, exciting runners but their best years are ahead of them and the Heineken Cup is an unforgiving place for youngsters still finding their feet.
Calm and collected in the certain knowledge that pigs don’t sprout wings overnight, Scottish fans can kick back unburdened by expectation and instead revel in the opportunity to see Europe’s finest go at it hammer and tongs.
Stade Francais and Wasps are both missing from this year’s line up – Hugo Southwell, who moved from one to the other in the summer, may have something to answer for – and two teams with differing backgrounds take their place and make their debuts – the filthy rich Racing Metro 92 and the comparative paupers from Connacht.
Leicester Tigers will surely shrug off their lowly league position and mount a challenge after the return of 12 players from World Cup duty but can Biarritz do the same? After finally landing the French title, is this the year that Clermont line up their European ducks? Can Munster regain their supremacy? Are Northampton stronger than they were last year, as their coaches claim? Just how good are the Aviva pace setters Harlequins?
There are a thousand and one fascinating questions to be answered, not least which stand-off will emerge victorious in Glasgow’s very own un-civil war? Whether Sean Lineen gives Ruaridh Jackson or Duncan Weir the start in Europe has implications for the national team and whoever wins that battle has plenty of other challenges ahead of him. Glasgow’s Pool 3 includes both playmakers who finished the World Cup final, François Trinh-Duc from Montpellier and Bath’s Stephen Donald, with the added spice of Johnny Sexton making up a trio of world-class No.10s.
The Irishman may yet prove himself the best. However exciting the World Cup final proved, and that was largely down to the scoreboard rather than the rugby on offer, it can’t hold a candle to last season’s Heineken finale when the Leinster fly-half grabbed his side by the scruff of their necks and gave them a damned good shake during the half-time break.
With his team trailing Northampton 22-6, Sexton launched into his very own, “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech, only this time the Dubliner admits he may have mentioned Liverpool’s famous fightback from 3-0 down against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, but highly embarrassing for a staunch Manchester United fan.
Talk is hollow without action and, sure enough, Sexton led the second-half revival on the field as well as in the dressing room. Prompted by Sexton’s two tries, three conversions and two second-half penalties to go with the brace he claimed before the break, Leinster scored 32 unanswered points to take the game away from Northampton with a Lazarus-like comeback. Sexton picked his club up off the floor, dusted it down and drove it towards European glory, reminding them just how long people would remember that day when talk turned to sporting heroics.
Leinster coach Joe Schmidt admitted last year that Sexton was one of the reasons he’d joined the province. He met the stand-off along with skipper Leo Cullen before signing and confessed to having some doubts about his ability to motivate a team that had already won the biggest prize on offer.
“Ah, don’t worry about that, we’ll do that,” replied Sexton. “You just give us the stuff we think we need and we’ll drive the boys forward, we’ll motivate them and keep them on the straight and narrow.”
Who at Edinburgh took Michael Bradely aside and said something similar to him when he first walked through the door?
Munster, Northampton, Scarlets, Castres
Expect a bareknuckle fight from these veteran bruisers. Munster didn’t make the play-offs last year and want to make amends. Castres’ multi-national squad are riding high in the Top 14 but lack European experience. The Scarlets will hope Rhys Priestland at No.10 makes up for a shortfall in forward grunt but Saints, last year’s runners-up, should be favourites.
Scot watch: Sean Lamont (Scarlets), Ben Prescott (Northampton), Max Evans and Scott Murray (both Castres)
Top dog: Saints
Biarritz, Ospreys, Saracens, Benetton Treviso
This would have looked a dark and dangerous pool a year ago but Biarritz have slipped to the foot of the Top 14 in the absence of Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yashvili, who were helping Les Bleus to second at the World Cup. Treviso will cause problems at home but not on the road so this pool should be between English champions Saracens or the Ospreys, who have just banned their players from using fake tan!
Scot watch: Nikki Walker (Ospreys) and Kelly Brown (Saracens)
Top dog: Saracens
Leicester, Clermont,, Ulster, Aironi
A battle between the English and French giants of the game, Tigers and Clermont, with the French side the favourites given where they sit in the Top 14. Aironi are holding up the RaboDirect Pro12 and everyone will be targeting them for an away win with a try bonus to boot and, while Ulster will cause a few bloody noses, they probably lack the firepower to win at Welford Road or Park Marcel Michelin.
Scot watch: Nathan Hines, Jason White and Mark Bennett (all Clermont), Simon Danielli (Ulster)
Top dog: Clermont
Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht
Connacht make their cup debut and will defend the Sportsground vigorously. Gloucester’s squad looks weaker than last year but Harlequins, top of the Aviva Premiership with seven wins in seven games before this weekend, are the dark horses. With the exception of Nick Evans, the London club has an almost entirely English roster that is young and talented, and is scoring at the rate of three tries per match. Still, Quins must be second favourites in any group containing Toulouse.
Top dog: Toulouse
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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