Sunday 11 December 2016

POOL SIX

Hugh Farrelly

Published 07/11/2011 | 05:00

HC best -- First season

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Last season -- N/A

The Westerners are desperate to banish the 'just happy to be here' tag that has accompanied their competition debut but the difficulty of this pool means using the Heineken Cup as a springboard for the future is a more manageable goal than qualification. Capable of challenging any opponent at the Sportsground, including Toulouse, with their combative pack, but have limitations in the backline. While getting out of the pool looks beyond them, their participation could bolster their Pro12 challenge.

Key player -- George Naoupu: Did well on the back foot against Ulster on Saturday, and the Kiwi No 8 is a figurehead for Connacht, lifting players around him.

One to watch -- Mike McCarthy: Will relish the chance to perform on this stage, where his athleticism and line-out ability will bring him to wider attention.

GLOUCESTER

HC best -- Semi-finalists 2001

Last season -- N/A

Decent form domestically but do not look to be at the same level as Toulouse or Harlequins. Kingsholm is always a tough venue to visit, but the squad looks a little shallow to harbour any serious thoughts of progression. Their away form is a long-standing issue and Connacht will fancy their chances at the Sportsground. There is steel and size in the pack and speed out wide, but not enough overall.

Key player -- Luke Narraway: The captain and No 8 leads by example and has much to prove after Thomas Waldrom's England elevation.

One to watch -- Charlie Sharples: Great name, great broken-field runner.

HARLEQUINS

HC best -- Quarter-finalists 1998, 2009

Last season -- N/A

Absolutely flying in the England Premiership, where Conor O'Shea is maximising his resources splendidly. It is not a team packed with superstars but one that plays with clear focus and energy, as they demonstrated when dismantling Bath away on Saturday. Will back themselves to pick up two victories from their opening outings at home to Connacht and then away to Gloucester and then the back-to-back meetings with Toulouse should decide who tops the pool.

Key player -- Nick Evans: Has been the best New Zealand out-half behind Dan Carter for the last six or seven years.

One to watch -- Joe Marler: Uncompromising prop whose image accurately conveys his abrasive play.

TOULOUSE

HC best -- Winners 1996, 2003, 2005, 2010

Last season -- Beaten semi-finalists

Have been the most consistent side in this competition since the inaugural tournament 16 years ago. There is no indication of that situation changing for this campaign as Guy Noves has them chugging along nicely at the summit of the Top 14, and they go into this weekend's home clash with Gloucester on the back of a decent win over Perpignan. Harlequins will take some beating, but Toulouse should top the pool to set up yet another title assault.

Key player -- Luke McAlister (left): The All Black has the ability to dominate from 10 or 12.

One to watch -- Maxime Medard: Not at his best at the World Cup but, on form, he is the ultimate defence-shredder.

PREDICTION: Toulouse

Irish Independent

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