Sunday 23 July 2017

Brendan Fanning: Ready to make a splash: Heineken Cup Pool-by-pool guide

POOL 1: Castres Munster, Northampton Scarlets, Will Castres have the least interest in risking their excellent Top 14 form by ploughing with gusto into the Heineken Cup?



Losing at home to Racing last weekend upset a rhythm which had been the polar opposite of Saints who suffered an awful start -- losing four in a row after an opening day win in the Premiership.

Munster, meanwhile, coped well without their World Cup contingent, but nobody relies on their big boys quite like Northampton and they are much the better for their return.

Scarlets have been ordinary in the Pro12 but will have a decent side out for the visit of Castres in the first round. Their coach Nigel Davies was pretty vocal in pointing out how hard it has been to run a region in Wales given the amount of time players spent on national duty. Sounds familiar.

Betfair Odds (to win pool): Munster 20/21, Northampton 11/10, Castres 9/2, Scarlets 7/1

Pivotal Point: Castres v Munster, Round 2

Prediction: Munster

POOL 2

Cardiff Edinburgh

London Irish Racing Metro

Not exactly the pool of death this one. Racing have recovered somewhat from a poor start domestically and we await the return to top form of Juan Martin Hernandez, fit again and not long ago one of the brightest stars in the world game. Racing will be better for the experience of last season where they lacked interest and won only two pool games, and if Pierre Berbizier can apply what are fantastic playing resources, then they have enough firepower to qualify for the knockouts in only their second year in the competition.

London Irish had a reasonable start to the Premiership but have suffered badly on the injury front. They play good rugby but the question is for how long, once the wear and tear eats into their thin squad?

Neither Cardiff nor Edinburgh will trouble anybody enough to come out the far side.

Betfair Odds: Racing Metro evs, Cardiff 6/4, London Irish 7/4, Edinburgh 7/1

Pivotal Point: London Irish v Racing, Round 4

Prediction: Racing Metro

POOL 3

Bath Glasgow

Leinster Montpellier

Bath have a big squad and an even bigger bank balance thanks to the stupendously wealthy Bruce Craig, who dreams of the salary cap being lifted so he can get serious about buying in talent.

After his World Cup final appearance, Stephen Donald now classes as a big name though he wasn't when they signed him, and he won't arrive until this week. In what shape remains to be seen.

Montpellier play really good rugby and will be the main challenge to Leinster but no matter how much Joe Schmidt talks them up, their lack of experience at this level is a huge factor. Having lost to Glasgow already in the Pro12 Leinster will be on red alert for those ties so the chances of complacency are slim.

The current champions should come through this lot with something to spare.

Betfair Odds: Leinster 2/11, Bath 11/5, Montpellier 9/2, Glasgow 8/1

Pivotal Point: Montpellier v Leinster, Round 1

Prediction: Leinster

POOL 4

Aironi Clermont

Leicester Ulster

Back to a familiar routine here for Ulster, with two heavyweights in the pool to make their chances of qualifying look slim. The presence of Aironi opens the door to a second qualifier coming out of this group, but they are better than last year, and it might come down to the Tigers having to beat Ulster home and away to get that ticket.

Leicester's injury woes were typified by Anthony Allen severing a tendon when laying flooring at home. The loss for the opening rounds of Manu Tuilagi with a broken cheekbone is more serious though.

Clermont are tipping away -- demolishing Biarritz last weekend -- and will get full value out of new recruit Nathan Hines, and maybe Regan King, Lee Byrne and Sitiveni Sivivatu if they can get them all on the field at the same time. This has to be Clermont's season.

Betfair Odds: Leicester 4/5, Clermont 6/5, Ulster 4/1, Aironi 9/1

Pivotal Point: Ulster v Leicester, Round 5

Prediction: Clermont, Leicester

POOL 5

Treviso Biarritz

Ospreys Saracens

After a controversial and poor pool showing last season, Saracens are the hot favourites in this group, and will break new ground in taking the Biarritz tie to what must be their spiritual home, Cape Town. So along with bringing Ospreys to Wembley, that leaves them only with Treviso, first up, in the ramshackle Vicarage Road. Mark McCall's plan will be get off to a five-point flyer there and it would be a glorious opportunity lost if they don't skate home ahead of this lot. They have a cast of quality hookers to choose from, including yet another South African in Springbok John Smit, and very good options at 10 with Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson.

Throw in 9s Neil de Kock and Ben Spencer, who they rate highly, and Sarries are not short on depth. Treviso have a real chance here of their best ever pool showing.

Betfair Odds: Saracens 11/10, Biarritz 2/1, Ospreys 9/4, Treviso 11/2

Pivotal Point: Biarritz v Saracens, Round 2

Prediction: Saracens

POOL 6

Connacht Gloucester

Harlequins Toulouse

Gloucester's pathological fear of taking to the road hasn't improved a whole lot, and while the visit of Toulouse to the Sportsground is the obvious large-meets-little story, Eric Elwood will target this game when the Cherry and Whites come to Galway.

It's a very tough pool for the newcomers though, starting with the away trip to Harlequins who have made their best start ever to the Premiership. They translated domestic form successfully last season with their Amlin success and their back-to-back ties with Toulouse, who as usual are rock-solid in the top four of the Top 14, will sort out who leaves by the front door.

The presence of Connacht will probably offer a back door exit to somebody, and it's hard to see past Conor O'Shea and the ageless Guy Noves being the happiest of the four coaches when the pool empties.

Betfair Odds: Toulouse 2/5, Harlequins 12/5, Gloucester 4/1, Connacht 9/1

Pivotal Point: Toulouse v Harlequins, Round 4

Prediction: Toulouse, Harlequins

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