Heineken Cup Rugby 2013: Favourites to Win This Year's Competition
After an off-season of grappling, talk of want-away nations and big-money TV deals, the Heineken Cup kicked off on Friday with its future still shrouded in uncertainty.
With the complicated negotiation process still ongoing, it has yet to be confirmed whether or not the French and English clubs will break away from the event, which is celebrating its 19th year, but it is looking increasingly likely that they will.
Who will win the Heineken Cup this season?
If this is to be the last edition of Europe’s premier rugby competition, then there will be many teams eagerly vying to be last to lift the coveted crown at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff next year.
Here’s a look at the four teams that will most likely be left with the task of dimming the lights on the Heineken party after everyone else has gone home.
Defending champions Toulon will be looking to join Leinster and Leicester as the only back-to-back winners of the Heineken Cup.
The French side resemble Real Madrid teams of old in rugby form, with galacticos running through the team, and strength and depth in all areas of the field.
On paper, Bernard Laporte’s free-scoring team look set to steam through the group stages, but they will face challenges along the way, particularly on their travels.
The well-oiled machine, captained by Jonny Wilkinson, can sometimes splutter away from home and that has been evident this season with three losses on the road. While home wins are often commonplace in the Top 14, it is the sides Toulon have lost to that will worry them the most.
Defeats away to newly-promoted sides Grenoble and Oyonnax will have given their Pool 2 opponents—Cardiff Blues, Exeter and Glasgow—some belief.
But if Toulon can overcome their early-season travel sickness when the Heineken Cup kicks off, then they will be one of the favourites to take home the title.
Saracens are the early season in-form team, taking 23 points from their opening five matches in the Aviva Premiership.
The London outfit will be chomping at the bit to make another deep run this year after their bitter defeat to eventual champions Toulon on their own patch in last year’s semi-final. Their direct style of rugby crumbled under the pressure from Toulon, but they have strengthened in the right areas since.
As Stuart Barnes said in last weekend’s Sunday Times (subscription required): “When they lost the semi-final they were dynamited by the French Club in every contact.”
Mark McCall has since brought in Billy Vunipola from Wasps and James Johnson from Harlequins, who Barnes says "hits rucks like you wouldn’t believe."
Saracens line out in Pool 3 alongside Connacht, Zebre and Toulouse, who have been one of the giants of the European competition, winning it four times.
Both Toulouse and Saracens should qualify from the group. The English side seem to have learned the hard lessons from last season’s defeat and if they can get back to the semi-finals again, then there won’t be many betting against them.
Clermont will be hungry for success after losing a 16-15 heartbreaker to Toulon in last year’s final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The French side have some fantastic players in their ranks and although they find themselves in a tough group—made up of Racing Metro, Harlequins and Llanelli—their home form should take them through with little trouble.
Back in May, they set a new French record when they secured a 60th consecutive victory at the Stade Marcel Michelin and their last Heineken Cup loss at home came in 2008 against Sale Sharks.
Clermont have qualified out of their pool in the last four seasons and expect them to do the same again this year. They have yet to get their hands on European rugby’s most coveted prize and when the knock-out stages get underway, they will be one to watch.
If the curtain does close on the Heineken Cup this year, it will be the Irish teams who will suffer the most.
Five of the last eight winners have come from Ireland—Leinster (three) and Munster (two)—and there will be many on the island hoping to have the last laugh as the French and English look to break away.
Leinster look best placed out of the four provinces to go the distance, but there is work to do in Dublin before they can fully prove their worth. After losing out-half Jonny Sexton to Racing Metro over the summer and head coach Joe Schmidt to the Ireland team, there are question that need answering.
Jimmy Gopperth will challenge Ian Madigan for the No.10 shirt, but both players will need to bring their top form on a more consistent basis if Leinster are to succeed.
Leinster’s qualification out of the group is no certainty either. They find themselves pitted against French champions Castres, Northampton—who have conducted some good business in the off-season—and Ospreys.
Despite the obvious negatives, it’s impossible to rule out Leinster as potential champions. They have won the title in three of the last five years and in Brian O’Driscoll, they have a man who has been there and done it all.
The Irishman has been integral to everything both Leinster and Ireland have achieved over the last decade and, playing in his last season for both club and country, the centre will be looking to go out on a high.
There is talk of destiny swarming around Leinster this year. The last Heineken Cup. O’Driscoll’s last year. Surely it will all end well?
There are many hurdles that need jumping first, but Leinster can’t be ruled out just yet.
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