This year all four Irish provinces will take part in the Heineken Cup for the very first time. Our sports writers analyse their prospects.
By Gordon O’Callaghan
Last year’s Heineken Cup campaign was perhaps the lowest point in the professional era for Munster, as they failed to qualify for the knock-out stages for the first time in over a decade. Again, this season they are going to have to compete with some very respectable opposition in the opening stage.
First up for Munster is the visit of last year’s finalist Northampton Saints. The English side will have a point to prove in this competition, having had the cup ripped from their grasp during the second-half of last season’s final.
Northampton have added some serious talent to their squad over the summer with fly-half Ryan Lamb joining former Blackrock College winger, Vasily Artemeiv, and Samoan George Pisi.
Performing below par in the opening rounds of the English Premiership, the reintroduction of their World Cup stars, Ben Foden, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Chris Aston will mean they will provide stiff competition for that top spot.
The Scarlets are the third rank team in Pool 1 but they should they not be underestimated. The Welsh side may be lacking a bit up front but they have an impressive backline. Irish tormentor Rhys Priestland pulls the strings from out-half and he can call upon powerful runners outside him such as George North and Jonathan Davies. After a landmark World Cup for Wales, a run in Europe can be expected from a regional club, who traditionally misfire in this competition. With the Ospreys losing players to the lure of French money, it might just be up to the Scarlets to continue the revitalisation of Welsh rugby.
Castre Olympique are a slightly unpredictable side, and have surprised many in France by finishing third in the Top 14. They do have familiar faces in Max Evans and Scott Murray, and like any French team will be well organised.
If Munster are to progress into the knock-out stages of this year’s competition they will have to move past their traditional conservative game. The Saints and the Scarlets are more than capable of throwing the ball around the pitch and scoring tries. Ian Keatley has been in good form in the absence of O’Gara, and with the return of Conor Murray and Keith Earls, one would hope that Tony McGahan will turn to the likes of Keatley and Murray as well as Simon Zebo and Danny Barnes, to give them some youthful energy.
By Daniel Keenan
Ulster had their best season in the Heineken Cup last year since winning the competition in 1999. A place in the quarter-finals, where they lost to eventual finalists Northampton, was their best finish in twelve years. They are an ever-improving squad with a mixture of young Irish talent, international players and strong clubmen. Every Heineken Cup team will be buoyed by the return of their World Cup stars, but Ulster have arguably the best returning contingent.
Stephen Ferris and Rory Best, two linchpins in the Ulster forward line, join Ruan Piennar, Johann Muller, Andrew Trimble and new recruit John Afoa among others, in returning to the northern province. The loss of BJ Botha to Munster could have had a catastrophic effect on the Ulster scrum, so pivotal to their attacking game, but with the acquisition of Afoa, Ulster have managed to find an even better scrummager.
Another new recruit, Jared Payne, has ruptured his Achilles tendon and his participation in the group stages is in doubt. The New Zealand born centre/fullback showed brief glimpses of his Blues’ form in the three games he has played so far and his injury comes just as he looked to be settling into the Ulster team.
Ulster face a mammoth task to even get out of their group, with Clermont Auvergne and Leicester Tigers in their way in Pool 4. Clermont have never truly excelled in the Heineken Cup but can never be written off. Losing Napolioni Nalaga is significant but with the signing of Sitiveni Sivavatu, Lee Byrne and David Skrela, Clermont have an extremely dangerous backline, already containing Morgan Parra, Aurèlin Rougerie and Julien Malzieu. Combined with a traditionally strong French pack, Clermont could easily top the group. Ulster’s best opportunity to beat them will be in Ravenhill next weekend, when they may well catch them with a World Cup hangover. Overcoming Clermont in France is a near impossible task.
Ulster won’t fear Aviva Premiership opposition but Leicester Tigers are capable of beating any team, with a bruising forward line and their dogged style of play. The Tigers should overcome Ulster in Leicester and a win for them in Belfast is certainly within the realm of possibilities.
The pressure will even be on Ulster to secure bonus point wins over group minnows Aironi, as with the tight nature of the group, bonus points are likely to decide who progresses. Group 4 will be a very tight group, meaning the second-placed team is unlikely to qualify as one of the best runners-up. Ulster are constantly improving but it seems a place in the quarter-finals will be a bridge too far this year.
Prediction: Group Stages
By Kevin Beirne
Given their recent record in this tournament, Leinster will enter the Heineken Cup full of confidence, having won it twice in the past three years and making the semi-final on the other occasion.
After playing the top three sides in France, as well as the English Champions of that year, on their way to the final last season, Leinster have been given an easier draw this year. Looking at the group, it would not be unreasonable to expect an experienced Leinster side to pick up five wins. Bath are not even close to the force they once were. Although they boast talents such as the hard-hitting Lewis Moody, they are far from a daunting prospect.
Glasgow, although a traditional bogey team for Leinster, rarely perform in Europe and lack the necessary skill in their backline to trouble the bigger teams. Barring a miracle of Braveheart proportions, they are unlikely to challenge the top spot in Pool 3.
Despite finishing as runners-up in last season’s Top 14, little would be known about Montpellier by those who don’t follow the French league. Their domestic success last season was something of a shock. With Fulgence Ouedraogo and Francois Trinh-Duc in their squad, they are not tournament minnows, but are inexperienced at this level. Leinster should come out of the group expecting a home quarter-final.
The Heineken Cup is an unpredictable tournament and there are more obstacles to overcome than your opposition, the main problem being injuries. Injuries can stop a championship season dead in its tracks. Although Leinster have great depth in certain areas, others could be left seriously exposed by even one casualty.
The most obvious of these is at out-half. If Jonathan Sexton were to pick up a serious knock, it would be a huge problem for Leinster. Although Ian Madigan has been impressive, it is hard to see him replicating Sexton’s replacement-heroics of 2009, while Mat Berquist has barely left the physio table since arriving in the summer.
More worryingly, should Leo Cullen be forced out by injury, a possibility made all the more likely given the fact he will be thirty-four by the time the knockout stages begin, there is no clear-cut replacement to step in and compete at a level remotely resembling that of the captain.
That being said, Leinster are the team to beat this year. If they can stay clear of injuries and continue to grow under Schmidt, than there is no question about them reaching the final. They may even become the first back-to-back winners since Leicester in 2001/2002.
By Fearghal Bannon
Connacht have qualified for their first Heineken Cup not through the Celtic League but by virtue of Leinster winning the Heineken Cup last season, and rising two ERC ranking points.
With the mass exodus of Connacht’s young Irish hopes; Jamie Hagan, Ian Keatley, Fionn Carr and Sean Croinin, at the end of last season, Connacht have needed to recruit, signing fifteen players during the summer. The return of their star No. 8 George Naoupu will provide a huge boost as it was the New Zealander’s all action performances that brought them to the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final in 2010. His return from Japanese side Kobe Steelers is easily their biggest acquisition. The signing of Tongan winger Fetu’u Vainikolo is quite a coup for Connacht, while rugby league convert Henry Fa’afili in the centre will plug the gaping hole in their defence.
Overall, Connacht have improved since last season and increased their squad depth, a problem that has hindered their progress over the years. In their traditionally injury-ravaged back row, they have signed former Ulster player Willie Faloon and Munster native Eoghan Grace to join Naoupu and captain John Muldoon.
Despite the youth coming through the ranks, including recent signing of UCD’s David McSharry, Connacht will struggle to make an impact this year in the tournament, with the presence of Heineken Cup legends Toulouse, current English Premiership leaders Harlequins and former big hitters Gloucester.
Connacht fans are sure to be excited at the prospect of Toulouse arriving in the West of Ireland, but Connacht couldn’t have asked for a tougher draw, with the four-time Champions one of the only French teams who travel well. With one of the world’s most ferocious packs and a backline to match, as well as IRB World Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir, Connacht’s chances are minuscule.
With their upcoming talent and their superb management on and off the field, Connacht are a rising force, which can only be a positive for Irish rugby. The Heineken Cup, however, takes no prisoners, and the best Connacht can hope for is a big financial turnover from games at the redeveloped sports ground; they will be lucky to come out of Pool 6 with a win, the best opportunity for which will be at home to Gloucester on December 10th.
Prediction: Group Stages