Well, the Heineken Cup starts this weekend with all 4 Irish provinces in action. It should be a very exciting tournament, and may even prove to be the last under the current format!
Leinster are defending champions, of course, and are looking to capture a record 3rd cup in a row. They are in an OK pool, there main rival to top the pool are Clermont. Welsh side Scarlets cannot be underestimated, and debut team, Exeter Chiefs may provide competition, but barring anything unforseen I can confidently predict that Leinster will proceed to the quarter-final stages. They would be careful not to get too confident, though.
Leinster have had a mixed start to the Rabo, losing heavily to Connacht, but coming back to beat Munster quite handidly. Hopefully it will be a much more consistent team that contest the Heineken, most of the full side should be available as well.
Ulster had a terrific season last year, despite losing the Heineken final to Leinster, and they’ve started this season very well, being undefeated in the Rabo, topping the table. They are luckier in a sense than Leinster or Munster in that they have fewer international player’s so there isn’t such a confusion throughout the seaon.
Speaking of international player’s, they’ll be buoyed by the arrival of, Irish and Lions wing, Tommy Bowe into the side, who should make a very potent combination with Andrew Trimble. Other star’s Rory Best (who should be looking at a much-deserved Lions tour at the end of the seaon) and Stephen Ferris also make Ulster a force to be reckoned with. The tragic death of their young star, Nevin Spence, should provide some motivation as well.
Ulster have a good chance of topping the pool, there only real challenge coming from, 2011 Heineken finalists, Northampton. They should beat Castres and Glasgow. Again, it won’t do to be complacent.
Munster are hurting from a loss to Leinster and are going through a rough patch. They’re also missing their talisman, Paul O’Connell. Donncha Ryan did well in the summer tests against New Zealand, but NO-ONE can match the presence of O’Connell.
Munster have the toughest pool in the tournament. They have a very good chance of beating Racing Metro, but should be wary of Edinburgh, especially as they did one better than Munster last season and reached the semi-finals. Their coach Michael Bradley (former Irish international) should have some insights as well. Saracens are looking to provide the biggest test for Munster.
Munster aren’t the force of old, and it’s taking a while to reclaim their form. This might prove to be a transitional year for them.
Connacht will be chuffed with their recent demolishing of Leinster, though it was one of only 2 matches they’ve won so far this season. This is their second year in the Heineken, and their debut wasn’t an auspicious. They did well towards the end of the campaign, especially beating Harlequins, but they still have a long ways to go. They will be encouraged by new signing, former Scottish international Dan Parks, who has being one of the most consistent place kickers in the last 10 year’s.
Connacht have only a slim chance of progressing past the pool. Harlequins are one of the favourites to win the tournament, and Biarritz are a better team. Only debut side Zebre should be overcome.
Leinster are Ireland’s best hope for more Heineken success.Other favourites for the Heineken are Toulouse and Leicester, though sides suffered shock losses in last year’s tournament. It all kick’s off on Friday.