Sunday 17 December 2017

Guide to Heineken Cup: Pool Four


HC best -- Pool exit 2011

Last season -- Pool exit

The club everybody wanted to get in their pool, as their Pro12 performances emphasise, where they have managed a solitary victory from eight outings. With a core of hardened forwards, Aironi can be depended on to put it up to any opposition in the set-pieces but, everywhere else, the Italians are extremely limited. They will be fired up at home, but any Aironi victory in this pool would represent a major surprise.

Key player -- Andrea Masi: The one class act in the Aironi backline can be an inspirational figure, as he showed in Italy's win over France last season.

One to watch -- Nick Williams: A flop at Munster, Williams at his best is an exciting ball-carrier.


HC best -- Quarter-finalists 2000, 2002, 2010

Last season -- Pool exit

Motoring along nicely in the Top 14 (although last weekend's heavy defeat away to Stade Francais was an unwelcome blip), Clermont are ready to achieve the Heineken Cup fulfilment they have threatened for the last four or five seasons. Previously undone by horrendous pool draws, Clermont have a tasty group this time and will be seeking a statement of intent in Belfast next weekend. Strong in all areas, with a deep squad to select from, the French outfit should secure a home quarter-final.

Key player -- David Skrela: Contesting the out-half slot with Brock James, Skrela has never fulfilled his potential but is looking good so far this season.

One to watch -- Sitiveni Sivivatu: A surprise omission from New Zealand's World Cup squad, it remains to be seen how the winger beds in, but if he gets going, the tries will flow.


HC best -- Champions 2001, 2002

Last season -- Quarter-finalists

A great Heineken Cup side, whose warrior-like qualities are perfectly suited to this cup environment. However, poor Premiership form does not bode well and they have struggled to deal with World Cup absentees and various injury complications. Coughed up the chance of a morale-boosting victory when allowing London Irish to strike late for a draw on Saturday, but opening against Aironi will get them going and they will fancy Ulster at home in round two.

Key player -- Thomas Waldrom: The Kiwi-born No 8 may not look the most athletic but, as his 'Thomas The Tank' nickname suggests, he has a tremendous engine.

One to watch -- Horacio Agulla: A lovely runner with deceptive speed, the winger shone for Argentina at the World Cup.


HC best -- Champions 1999

Last season -- Quarter-finalists

Making the quarters last season was a huge boost but Ulster could struggle to kick on. An over-dependence on overseas imports threatens the provincial identity while they lack balance in the back-row selection and have no discernible style to their play -- as their disappointing Pro12 performances have emphasised. It is another tough pool draw for Ulster, who should be too good for Aironi but will do well to pick up points against Leicester and Clermont. Badly need the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Stephen Ferris to overcome injury problems.

Key player -- Ian Humphreys (left): At his best, the out-half is one of the finest playmakers in Europe.

One to watch -- Craig Gilroy: Full of pace and youthful confidence, the signs from the winger are encouraging.

POOL FOUR PREDICTION: Clermont, Leicester

Irish Independent

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