Saturday 25 March 2017

Heineken Cup Pool-by-Pool guide

Pool 1

Cardiff Blues, Castres, Edinburgh, Northampton Saints

Northampton go into the competition determined to kick on from last year when they let Munster off the hook in their final game at Thomond Park, before being predictably blown away on their return for the quarter-final.

Joint top of the English Premiership, Saints will be very good at home and that could give them the edge over the Blues as the Cardiff City Stadium is less intimidating to visit than Franklin's Gardens, although Cardiff have plenty of ability and Dan Parks' accuracy off the kicking tee will be pivotal to their chances.

Castres are having a mixed season in the Top 14 (four wins, five defeats) and if they lose their first two outings against the English and Welsh sides, their interest will be minimal, which should determine who finishes third in the pool as Edinburgh look poorly equipped to provide a meaningful challenge. However, at home there is always the chance of them being geared up enough to prove a banana skin for one of the bigger hitters.

What they say: "You need a little bit of luck to win the Heineken Cup. At this moment, we are looking pretty good on that score." -- Blues coach Dai Young (above).

What the bookies say: Northampton Saints (5/4), Cardiff Blues (6/4), Castres (10/1), Edinburgh (28/1)

Fixtures: Oct 8 -- Saints v Castres. Oct 9 -- Blues v Edinburgh. Oct 15 -- Castres v Blues. Oct 16 -- Edinburgh v Saints. Dec 11 -- Saints v Blues, Castres v Edinburgh. Dec 19 -- Edinburgh v Castres, Blues v Saints. Jan 14/15/16 -- Blues v Castres, Saints v Edinburgh Jan 21/22/23 -- Castres v Saints, Edinburgh v Blues.

Pool Two

Clermont, Leinster, Racing Metro, Saracens

An incredibly tough pool. Last season, Leinster lost their opener at home to London Irish and still managed to qualify, but defeat to Racing Metro at the RDS next weekend would spell disaster.

Their rediscovered brio in the win over Munster could not have been better timed, but you couldn't predict their progression from this pool with any degree of certainty.

A best-case scenario would see the French sides cancel each other out and focus on the Top 14, but after Clermont ended their long wait for domestic honours last season, they will surely be looking for the European fulfilment that Munster and Leinster (in last year's quarter-final) have denied them in recent seasons.

Joe Schmidt's inside knowledge from his time with Clermont will be invaluable to Leinster, while Saracens have developed a hard edge under Brendan Venter. The South African's bizarre comments regarding the true value of the Heineken Cup (see below) do not mean Saracens won't have their say and this pool is impossible to call -- although, with a bit of luck and some bonus points on the road, Leinster can progress.

What they say: "The main thing about the Heineken Cup is the financial benefits it brings, but we have developed our squad to win every game, not prioritise (the English Premiership)." -- Saracens coach Brendan Venter (pictured).

What the bookies say: Clermont (7/4), Leinster (3/1), Saracens (7/2), R Metro (6/1)

Fixtures: Oct 9 -- Leinster v Racing Metro, Clermont v Saracens. Oct 16 -- Racing Metro v Clermont, Saracens v Leinster. Dec 11 -- Saracens v Racing Metro. Dec 12 -- Clermont v Leinster. Dec 17 -- Racing Metro v Saracens. Dec 18 -- Leinster v Clermont. Jan 14/15/16 -- Clermont v Racing Metro, Leinster v Saracens. Jan 21/22/23 -- Racing Metro v Leinster, Saracens v Clermont.

Pool Three

London Irish, Munster, Ospreys, Toulon

No soft touches here either, although Munster have the nous to grind their way out of the pool. With their forwards rediscovering their bite, Munster can win all their home games and pick up points on the road, although they will need to increase their invention out wide to become live contenders for a third European crown.

London Irish are motoring along nicely in England and have impressive thrust in the backline, but, like the Ospreys, they can be vulnerable if they are targeted at their core and Munster will not fear either opponent. Toulon, with Jonny Wilkinson at No 10, look well set up for cup rugby and with the gritty experience of George Smith, Carl Hayman and the under-rated Kris Chesney, Toulon have a pack worth watching.

The Ospreys are desperate to finally make their mark in Europe but, for all their exciting talent, you feel they still lack the necessary hardness, even with the commanding presence of Marty Holah in their back row. Losing bonus points should have a big say in deciding who tops this pool, which could end up as a shootout between the French and Irish representatives.

What they say: "There were times when we would have looked at this pool with real trepidation but I would like to think they will be thinking more about us." -- Ospreys coach Sean Holley (above).

What the bookies say: Munster (7/4), Ospreys (2/1), Toulon (4/1), London Irish (10/1)

Fixtures: Oct 9 -- Toulon v Ospreys, L Irish v Munster. Oct 15 -- Ospreys v L Irish. Oct 16 -- Munster v Toulon. Dec 12 -- Munster v Ospreys, L Irish v Toulon. Dec 18 -- Ospreys v Munster, Toulon v L Irish. Jan 14/15/16 -- L Irish v Ospreys, Toulon v Munster. Jan 21/22/23 -- Munster v L Irish, Ospreys v Toulon.

Pool Four

Aironi, Bath, Biarritz, Ulster

Finally, Ulster have a manageable pool, along with the belief that comes from a strong start to their Magners League campaign - four wins and a draw from their five outings.

Their expensively acquired South African contingent provides Brian McLaughlin's men with a strong spine and Ravenhill is slowly returning to its former status as European citadel.

But, the most compelling reasons for Ulster confidence are the doubts surrounding their opponents. Aironi are game but limited, while Bath's dismantling by Gloucester at the Rec last weekend exposed some serious deficiencies in a venue that holds no fears for Ulster.

Meanwhile, last year's beaten finalists Biarritz have mixed the reasonable with the awful in the Top 14 so far but, as long as they have Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili in their ranks, they demand to be taken seriously. This is undoubtedly Ulster's best chance of qualifying (as leaders or runners-up) since they lifted the title in 1999 but they will need to be ruthless, particularly against the Italians.

What they say: "Our campaign last season was over before it had begun but the prestige of our club and the competition itself demands that we do well this time." -- Bath coach Steve Meehan (pictured).

What the bookies say: Biarritz (11/10), Bath (5/4), Ulster (10/1), Aironi (500/1)

Fixtures: Oct 8 -- Ulster v Aironi. Oct 10 -- Bath v Biarritz. Oct 16 -- Aironi v Bath. Oct 17 -- Biarritz v Ulster. Dec 11 -- Ulster v Bath, Aironi v Biarritz. Dec 17 -- Biarritz v Aironi. Dec 18 -- Bath v Ulster. Jan 14/15/16 -- Bath v Aironi, Ulster v Biarritz. Jan 21/22/23 -- Aironi v Ulster, Biarritz v Bath.

Pool Five

Leicester Tigers, Perpignan, Scarlets, Treviso

It will be a major surprise if Leicester and Perpignan do not emerge from this pool with relative ease, for Treviso and the Scarlets are not in the same class.

The Italians have had an encouraging introduction to the Magners League and are playing with tremendous belief at home but, on their travels, they look destined to cough up tries. The Scarlets simply do not have the firepower to provide a meaningful challenge, which leaves this pool as a showdown between England and France.

With six wins and a draw in their first nine Top 14 games, Perpignan have some form and should win their two opening matches -- with a real shot at maximum points -- to provide momentum.

As ever, Leicester are the old dogs for the long road and Richard Cockerill's men can open strongly also, leaving the back-to-back showdowns with Perpignan in December as the decisive encounters in this pool -- although there is scope for both to progress.

What they say: "Given the sides representing the Premiership, I would expect at least two or three to make the knockout stages." -- Leicester coach Richard Cockerill (above).

What the bookies say: Leicester (4/7), Perpignan (11/5), Scarlets (20/1), Treviso (500/1)

Fixtures: Oct 9 -- Treviso v Tigers, Scarlets v Perpignan. Oct 17 -- Perpignan v Treviso, Tigers v Scarlets. Dec 11 -- Perpignan v Tigers, Scarlets v Treviso. Dec 18 -- Treviso v Scarlets. Dec 19 -- Tigers v Perpignan. Jan 14/15/16 -- Treviso v Perpignan, Scarlets v Tigers. Jan 21/22/23 -- Tigers v Treviso, Perpignan v Scarlets.

Pool Six

Glasgow Warriors, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Toulouse, Wasps

Toulouse should emphasise their status as champions by cruising through this relatively easy pool with Wasps and Glasgow battling for second place and the Dragons bringing up the rear.

Wasps have been in reasonable form across the water, notching up good wins against Leicester and away to Sale but only managing a home draw with Harlequins and losing to Newcastle.

They have European pedigree, however, and plenty of grunt, in the shape of Tim Payne, Joe Worsley, Andy Powell and Serge Betsen among others, to go with the pace of Tom Varndell and Richard Haughton.

It should prove too potent a mix for the Warriors and Dragons although Glasgow will be nuggety at home -- as typified by their superb captain and openside John Barclay .

If the Dragons capitulate completely, this pool could provide two qualifiers but the smart money is on Toulouse being the sole qualifier to launch their latest assault on European domination.

What they say: "Money is not a difference between France and England: Toulouse may have it, but not the players. Trophies are our reward." -- Toulouse half-back Frederic Michalak (pictured).

What the bookies say: Toulouse (1/4), Wasps (9/2), Glasgow (40/1), Dragons (100/1)

Fixtures: Oct 8 -- Warriors v Dragons. Oct 10 -- Toulouse v Wasps. Oct 16 -- Dragons v Toulouse. Oct 17 -- Wasps v Warriors. Dec 10 -- Warriors v Toulouse. Dec 12 -- Dragons v Wasps. Dec 18 -- Toulouse v Warriors. Dec 19 -- Wasps v Dragons. Jan 14/15/16 -- Warriors v Wasps, Toulouse v Dragons. Jan 21/22/23 -- Wasps v Toulouse, Dragons v Warriors.

Irish Independent

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