Europe’s premier domestic competition is about to commence Round 5 of 6 – but with all Europe competing, what is it all about?
We have a glut of top level rugby being played in Europe’s flagship competition, the pinnacle of which is the Heineken Cup (The European Rugby Cup) the premier tournament domestically in world rugby, of which only the Super 14 can match. It features domestic teams from the Six Nations countries.
England and France have at least six teams, decided by their respective club competitions (the Guinness Premiership and the Top 14). Ireland, Wales have three teams while Scotland has two; decided by the Magner’s League standings. Finally the Italians have two teams, decided by their Super 10 club competition format.
The final two places are decided effectively by two methods. One team comes from the highest ranked English, French or Italian team from the previous year’s tournament – this year that team is Toulouse, the beaten finalists. The other is from a playoff between the best placed team in the Magner’s League or Super 10 not already in the Cup.
This leaves us with 24 teams, split into six pools. They combat home and away over six rounds, spread between October and January. The quarter finals are in April, semis in May, and this season’s final will be decided on the 23rdMay, at Murrayfield, Scotland.
We are about to enter the fifth round. So let’s look at each pool and their games commencing on the 16th January:
Each team has its current HC WIN/LOSS in brackets.
(GP = Guinness Premiership, T14 = French Top 14, ML = Magners League, ST = Italian Super 10)
POOL 1 – (in order of pool position) Munster (3/1), Sale Sharks (2/2), Clermont Auvergne (2/2), Montauban (1/3)
16/1/09 – Munster V Sale @ Thomond Park
16/1/09 – Clermont V Montauban @ Stade Marcel Michelin
Munster showed vulnerability losing to Ulster - the first time in over 13 years Munster had lost at Thomond – and the reigning champions have looked far from unbeatable but are still 2nd in the ML. Sale and especially Clermont are both in good form in the GP and T14 being in the top 4 of their respective leagues – with the latter already beating the Stags 25-19 this season.
POOL 2 – Leinster (3/1), London Wasps (3/1), Castres Olympique (1/3), Edinburg (1/3)
16/1/09 – Edinburgh V Castres @ Murrayfield
17/1/09 – London Wasps V Leinster @ Twickenham
Current GP champions Wasps and Current ML champions Leinster have struggled in their respective championships – but both have only lost once so far in the HC. The upcoming game at Twickenham will decide the automatic qualifier. Wasps, with half the English national team and Danny Cipriani in the side are favourites for the pool. But Leinster, loaded with Irish internationals and former Wallabies Rocky Elsom and Chris Whittaker are challenging.
POOL 3 – Ospreys (3/1), Leicester Tigers (3/1), Perpignan (2/2), Benetton Terviso (0/4)
17/1/09 – Leicester Tigers V Benetton Terviso @ Welford Road
17/1/09 – Perpignan V Ospreys @ Stade Aimé Giral
Current Magner’s league leader Ospreys – loaded with Welsh internationals and former All Blacks Filo Tiatia and Marty Holah—are looking strong this year. Tigers coach Heyneke Meyer and his team are showing typical character, but they have looked wobbly of late but are still in the top four of the GP. However, we cannot discount Perpignan, 3rd in the T14 and looking portentous with star signing Dan Carter fitting in well.
POOL 4 – Harlequins (4/0), Stade Francais (2/2), Ulster (1/1/2), Scarlets (1/3)
17/1/09 – Ulster Rugby V Harlequins @ Ravenhill
18/1/09 – Scarlets V Stade Francais @ Parc y Scarlets
Quins, currently midtable in the GP—are one of only three unbeaten teams in the HC and are being led superbly by former All Black Nick Evans. Ewen McKenzie’s Stade are 2nd in the T14 with a brilliant for and against record and are almost unbeatable in France, but in the HC have gone down twice to the mighty Quins. Ulster and Scarlets are bringing up the rear of the ML, and will not challenge for the pool or the championship.
POOL 5 – Toulouse (4/0), Bath Rugby (3/1), Newport Dragons (1/3), Glasgow Warriors (0/4)
17/1/09 – Toulouse V Glasgow @ Stade Ernest Wallon
18/1/09 – Newport V Bath @ Rodney Parade
Current French champions Toulouse are currently the best team in Europe; topping the T14, unbeaten in the HC, and on the verge of setting a new French record of most consecutive games won and wield 10 front line Les Bleus players and former All Black Byron Kelleher who is in the form of his life.
Bath is looking strong, 3rd in the GP and with a brilliant attack marshalled by Springbok Butch James—and their hosting of Toulouse in the final round will decide the pool.
POOL 6 – Cardiff Blues (4/0), Gloucester Rugby (3/1), Biarritz (1/3), Rugby Calvisano (0/4)
17/1/09 – Rugby Calvisano V Biarritz Olympique @ Centro Sportivo
18/1/09 – Gloucester V Cardiff Blues @ Kingsholm
Cardiff are the enigma, unbeaten in the HC yet second last in the ML—despite numerous Welsh internationals and kiwi stalwarts Ben Blair and Paul Tito who captains the side. They are the dark horse of the competition.
Gloucester have scored more tries in the HC than any other team, and being second in the GP will fancy their chances of a title shot. The Cherry and Whites have been table toppers in both the GP and HC for years now, but consistently fall at the final hurdle.