(Both Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster) and Peter O’Mahony (Munster) are injured and unlikely to appear for their respective provinces over the weekend. Both players are big losses. Also, Leinster hooker Richard Strauss has been ruled out of the season with a heart condition. He’s a huge loss as he is also qualified to play for Ireland).
Well, the Heineken Cup kicks off this weekend and all signs are pointing to it being a very exciting tournament! While the Heineken Cup is exciting every year, this year there is the bonus aspect of it being the last ever Heineken Cup! The chance to be crowned the last-ever Heineken Champions should give added incentive to the teams taking part!
All 4 Irish provinces are taking part once again and each has been given a very difficult pool to overcome. This season is also one of transition for Irish rugby, with new coaches, absent players and several other players looking at retirement. There’s no doubt that Irish rugby has gained much from the Heineken and would lose a lot if the Heineken Cup was ended.
There’s been no progress in the split between the ERC and the English/French clubs. Hopefully, though, all the problems can be put to the background while the game itself takes centre stage. This Heineken looks to be a cracking tournament with there being several possible winners, each in very competitive pools.
POOL 1: LEINSTER, CASTRES, OSPREYS, NORTHAMPTON
Leinster are going through some big changes at the moment: they have a new coach in Matt O’Connor and they are without Jonny Sexton. They are also saying goodbye to Brian O’Driscoll, who retires at the end of the season. He looks likely to be joined by Leo Cullen and possibly Gordon D’Arcy (both of whom are in their early/mid-30’s).
Matt O’Connor has some very big boots to fill as he takes over from Joe Schmidt, who was Leinster’s most successful coach ever! Under Schmidt, Leinster won 2 Heineken Cups and an Amlin Cup and have become one of the top teams in Europe. His influence on the team will be sorely missed. It remains to be seen if O’Connor can approach this success.
Leinster will also be without the services of Jonny Sexton, who contributed a huge amount to their success. Leinster have 2 capable out-halves in Ian Madigan and Jimmy Goepperth. Neither are in Sexton’s league, though. Goepperth doesn’t have the flair and Madigan is untested at a high level.
Leinster may also be looking at saying goodbye to Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, whose contracts are up at the end of the season. Both players are key to Leinster’s success, O’Brien has become a star and Heaslip is the Leinster (and Ireland) captain. They would be big losses to Leinster (and Ireland).
Leinster have a strong side, with the Kearney brothers and Luke Fitzgerald making a very potent back-3. They also have Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss battling over the scrum-half spot. In the pack they have Cian Healy (a world-class prop) and a great second row pairing in Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy. They do have the tools to do well this year.
Castres won the French club tournament (Top 14) last year but are having a difficult time this season, having only won 4 out of 9 matches (losing 5) and are currently ranked 11 in the Top 14. They have a bad record away from home, so it’s lucky that Leinster’s first game against them takes place in the RDS next Saturday!.
Ospreys have proven to be Leinster’s bogey team in recent years. Ospreys have beaten Leinster twice to win the Rabo, both times in the RDS! On the plus side, Ospreys don’t have a great record in the Heineken. To their advantage, Ospreys have a very capable team including a pack which features 4 of the Lions test side.
Their out-half, Dan Biggar is also a force. Of note is that Leinster have already played Ospreys in the Rabo this season, the game finishing in a 29-all draw! Neither team had its Lions stars, though. The outcome is too close to call. I give the slight advantage to Leinster but a lot rests on whoever is picked at out-half. He’ll have a very tough time against Biggar!
Northampton lost to Leinster in the Heineken Final, in 2011, but they have a great team, buoyed by new signings George North and Alex Corbisiero, who both contributed hugely to the Lions series win in the summer. Northampton are having a great season, being ranked 2 in the Aviva Premiership.
Leinster will have a very tough time to even advance out of the pool, let alone win it! It will be crucial to gain the maximum amount of points if they are to have any chance of beating their poor showing from last season. Their first game is against Ospreys on Saturday (11th) at 6pm!
Also of note is that Castres play Northampton earlier that day, at 3.40!
POOL 5: ULSTER, LEICESTER, TREVISO, MONTPELLIER
UlSTER face Leicester on Friday (8pm) which should be one of the games of the weekend! Ulster will be buoyed by the return of Tommy Bowe, from injury, and Springbok Scrum-half Ruan Pienarr, whose on the bench. Ulster are one of the more stable Irish sides at the moment but they’re also in a difficult pool.
Leicester are not the force they were a decade ago (when they won back-to-back Cups) but they are still a dangerous side. They won the Premiership title last year (a record 10th trophy) and are currently placed 3rd in the table (out of 12). They have quite a large number of players on the sidelines (injured) but still have a powerful team.
Leicester have several of the players that helped the Lions win the series against Australia and have a potent out-half in Toby Flood. Of interest will be the battle between hookers Rory Best and Tom Youngs, who both played for the Lions. Leicester have the edge at half-back which may help them win the game.
Montpellier are a strong side, 2nd in the Top 14. They are relatively new to the Heineken Cup, this year being their 3rd appearance. They advanced passed their pool last year only to be beaten heavily by Clermont in the quarter-final. They have a good team though and will make the pool a 3-way contest.
Treviso have featured in every Heineken Cup but have never made it passed the pool stages. They have a strong side though, with 25 international players in the squad and would be underestimated at the other teams’ peril.
POOL 6: MUNSTER, EDINBURGH, GLOUCESTER, PERPIGNAN
MUNSTER are also going though a transitional period, being without Ronan O’Gara for the first time in 15 years! O’Gara has had a huge influence in Munster and on rugby. He has the highest points record of any player in club competition, with over a 1,000 points and has been a great servant for Munster over the years.
Doug Howlett is another player that has retired and he also contributed so much to the Munster side. On the plus side, Paul O’Connell is back on form, having missed most of last season and Conor Murray is turning into a great scrum-half. They also have great attacking players in Simon Zebo and Keith Earls.
Munster had the best record of any Irish province last year, making it to the semi-finals of last year’s Heineken, before losing 14-10 to Clermont. They’re having a great run in the Rabo this season, currently placing 2nd and will be buoyed by their recent win against Leinster. They have an easier pool than the other provinces.
Glasgow are Munster’s first opponents (Saturday at 1.30) and are in very good form at the moment, currently top of the Rabo, with 5 wins out of 5. They have a pretty poor record in the Heineken (apart from reaching a semi-final in 2012) but they will want to continue their winning streak.
Perpignan are having a mixed season, ranked 6th in the Top 14. This is their first appearance in the Heineken Cup in a few years so they’ll want to make the most of it.
Gloucester are currently ranked 10th in the Aviva Premiership, having lost 3 of the 5 games so far (won 2). They are an exciting team. Can do damage when they’re on form.
CONNACHT are in pool 3 with Saracens, Toulouse and Zebre. Saracens and Toulouse are 2 of the favourites to win the Heineken outright. Connacht has a good chance of beating Zebre but is unlikely to shock the 2 heavyweights. Connacht have made improvements each year they’ve been in the Heineken but this might be a quiet tournament for them.
Last year’s Heineken champions, Toulon are in Pool 2 with Cardiff, Exeter and Glasgow. Toulon are likely to top the pool though the other sides are strong enough. Toulon has a wealth of quality players and are currently top of the Top 14, though they’re not playing well at the moment. They should come alive in the Heineken and will want to defend their crown.
Jonny Sexton’s new clubs, Racing Metro, are in Pool 4, along with Harlequins, Clermont and the Scarlets. Clermont were beaten in last year’s final, a good side that should top this pool. The other 3 sides are having mixed seasons, with none looking very dangerous.
Interestingly, 3 of the sides in the pool have Irish connections, with Harlequins coached by Conor O’Shea, Scarlets coached by Simon Easterby and Racing coached by Ronan O’Gara!
All in all, it should be a very exciting tournament!