Irish set fair to continue domination as 15th Heineken Cup campaign gets under way
There were some interesting sights and sounds in Paris last week as the great and good of the Heineken Cup fraternity gathered in a grand restaurant on the Seine to launch the 15th instalment of the world's most captivating club rugby tournament – or, as many right-thinking folk would argue, the most captivating rugby tournament of any description.
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Delon Armitage, the England full-back, was there with his busted shoulder; James Haskell, the calendar-boy flanker, was there with his clothes on (for once). And then there were the French themselves, talking about "humility".
They were so profoundly humble, the representatives of Toulouse and Perpignan and Stade Français, that Uriah Heep himself might have wondered whether they were overegging the crème brulee. Yet it was not difficult to see their point. France suffered the full range of indignities last season, its teams crashing out in the pool stage right, left and centre. Only Toulouse made it through to the knock-out stage, and even then only just.
Something has happened to undermine the old French swagger and it has nothing to do with the English, who scarcely covered themselves in glory last time out. The people who worry the French are the Celts: not just the Irish, whose top-end provincial teams, Leinster and Munster, pose very considerable threats, but the Welsh too.
After a decade of Anglo-French hegemony from 1996 and 2005, broken only by Ulster's victory in the English boycott year of 1999, the Heineken Cup is now well and truly into its Celtic age. In the last four seasons, Munster have triumphed twice and Leinster once. If the former are not quite the power of old, the latter are heading onwards and upwards at tremendous speed. Once the multi-talented Ospreys are thrown into the mix, the chances of the Irish and Welsh dominating the next few competitions seem strong indeed.
Yet two of the French contingent, Stade Français and Perpignan, have put the tournament at the heart of their campaigns. "You would not believe how much it would mean to this club to lift the Heineken Cup," said Haskell, the back-rower who left Wasps for the French capital in the summer. "There is massive ambition at Stade Français: you can sense it in training and you can see it every time we move a game to Stade de France and pull 80,000 spectators through the gates."
Stade Français have every chance of finding themselves at the business end of this season's competition. Up front they are magnificently equipped and they have Lionel Beauxis, so accurate with the boot that he makes Jonny Wilkinson look like a hit-and-hope merchant. Potential winners? Now they have sorted their coaching, they should at least compete.
Perpignan also have the potential to challenge, but like their French brethren, not to mention the English contingent, they may well find the fundamental advantage held by the Celtic teams impossible to address.
In the Top 14, as in the Guinness Premiership, relegation matters because it exists. In the Magners League, it doesn't because it doesn't. If Leinster are really desperate to retain the European title they won in May, they will rest their big names safe in the knowledge that livelihoods will not be put at risk. This is not the case in England or France.
Should Leinster successfully defend the trophy, it will be for two reasons: because they are a formidable team drawing deeply from the well of brilliance provided by Brian O'Driscoll, and because the system is weighted towards them. An English whinge? No, just a statement a fact.
Ready for kick off Heineken Cup guide
Pool 1: Munster, Northampton, Perpignan, Treviso
Even the most flint-hearted of sadists will spare a thought for Treviso. The strongest of the Italian clubs – or rather, the least weak – must travel to three grounds where away victories are rarer than radium. Which brings us to the burning question: who amongst the three genuine challengers will win more than once on the road? Munster have the track record to suggest they might, while Perpignan have the desire. Northampton? Their performances away from Franklin's Gardens are improving, but without Euan Murray and Dan Vickerman, they may find things just a little too hot.
And the qualifiers are... Perpignan
Pool 2: Biarritz, Glasgow, Gloucester, Newport Gwent Dragons
Biarritz lost three of their first four pool games last season and slipped away quietly. Now, the Basques are winning Top 14 matches for fun: they have beaten three of their fellow French qualifiers – Stade Français, Brive and Perpignan – in the last few weeks and, with the likes of Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy performing strongly, look well equipped to progress. If Glasgow are dangerous but inconsistent, Gloucester are bordering on the dire. And the Dragons? The steady improvement shown by least talked-about of the Welsh regional teams will probably not be enough, although they may go unbeaten at Rodney Parade.
And the qualifiers are... Biarritz
Pool 3: Clermont Auvergne, Leicester, Ospreys, Viadana
Nasty, very nasty. Leicester, struggling for form and fitness, are vulnerable to Ospreys at Welford Road this weekend, and should they lose the game, last season's beaten finalists will find it devilishly difficult to progress. The Welsh glitterati may be without their most glittery individual – anyone seen Gavin Henson lately? – but some of their Lions are beginning to click after the summer break. They will need to be seriously hot to win in Clermont-Ferrand, where no visiting side has prevailed for almost a year, but five victories in six games will surely be enough.
And the qualifiers are... Ospreys
Pool 4: Bath, Edinburgh, Stade Français, Ulster
Stade Français, fresh from the personnel upheavals of early season and feeling almost as good about their rugby as their nude calendar suggests they feel about themselves, are finding form just as Bath are floundering. The Parisians start as favourites – their desperation to win this competition knows no bounds – and if Bath find the best of themselves quickly, they could qualify alongside them, even though Edinburgh are capable of winning all three home fixtures and Ulster are slowly rebuilding Ravenhill from the bottom up after repeated stormings of the barricades.
And the qualifiers are... Stade Français and Bath
Pool 5: Cardiff Blues, Harlequins, Sale, Toulouse
The Blues looked the part last season; indeed, many would argue that their semi-final defeat by Leicester, who won by means of a flawed penalty shoot-out arrangement, was far less than they deserved. Unfortunately for them, they do not look the part now. Four defeats in five Magners League matches tells its own tale, and with neither Harlequins nor Sale in optimum shape, Toulouse will surely find themselves in the quarter-finals. They're playing at half-cock themselves, but 50 per cent of Michalak, Medard and company should be plenty.
And the qualifiers are... Toulouse
Pool 6: Brive, Leinster, London Irish, Scarlets
The Leinster-London Irish matches at either end of the pool stage are amongst the most delicious prospects of the season: two driven sides with few obvious weaknesses, they are intelligently coached and highly motivated. The Exiles will do very well indeed to take something from their visit to Dublin, but they have it in them to win all five of their subsequent games. The reappearance of Brive, champions in 1997, is welcome indeed, but they are not the thrillers they once were. As for the Scarlets, they are no longer the Welsh standard-bearers and could be an irrelevance here, sadly.
And the qualifiers are... Leinster and London Irish