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Who will be crowned kings of Europe?

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Bryn Palmer | 18:20 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

"Internationals are physical and pressurised, but in terms of an all-round challenge the Heineken Cup is bigger. Take nothing away from internationals and all the pride, but sometimes the standard of the Heineken Cup is higher."

Not the words of some excitable PR type, but a player who won the World Cup with England.

Such has been the growth in stature and quality of European rugby's showpiece club tournament over the past 14 years that Mike Tindall's remarks back in January barely raised an eyebrow.

The Gloucester centre was pondering his side's critical pool match against Cardiff Blues, one that another ill-timed injury ultimately prevented him from playing in.

As it was, there were still 22 internationals among the two starting line-ups, a fair reflection of the sort of quality now standard in many of the tournament's match-ups.

This weekend's opening skirmishes illustrate the point.

Leinster v London Irish, Munster v Northampton, Cardiff Blues v Harlequins, Stade Francais v Edinburgh and Leicester v Ospreys are all contests to warm the cockles of any rugby fan as the colder, darker days of autumn set in.

Captains of some of this year's participants eye the Heineken Cup trophy at the British launch of the tournament.jpg
This year's contenders from England, Wales and Scotland set their sights on the Heineken Cup

Friday's opening night includes a meeting of two former champions, Ulster (1999) and Bath (1998) at Ravenhill, but top billing undoubtedly goes to the clash at a capacity RDS in Dublin.

Defending champions Leinster, top of the Magners League despite the delayed entrance of their Lions this season, host free-scoring London Irish, hurtling along at 30 points a game in the Guinness Premiership and semi-finalists two years ago on their last foray into the Heineken.

Such is the strength of the hosts' backline that Rob Kearney, who announced himself as a world star with his performances for the Lions in the Test series in South Africa, only makes the bench.

The Exiles, meanwhile, are among those teams looking to establish themselves as a genuine European power, joining the Leicesters, Munsters, Toulouses and Wasps of this world.

"It is probably easier to predict the end of the economic downturn than go to Leinster first up," quips their ebullient coach Toby Booth. "But we want to test ourselves against the best and we are going to be tested from the outset. They are a formidable side but we aspire to be in that upper bracket."

A lofty ambition perhaps, but not unrealistic for a club that has made impressive progress in recent years and narrowly missed out on a first domestic title last season.

Along with perennial contenders Leicester, and perhaps Northampton, Irish represent England's best hope of adding to their six titles, two more than France and Ireland, the only other countries to have produced a winner.

So what prospect of any of the four Welsh, two Scottish or two Italian sides disrupting that status quo this year?

OK, let's be honest, we can probably discount the latter. Treviso will do well to win a single match in a group featuring Munster, Perpignan and Northampton, while Viadana are unlikely to break their Heineken Cup duck with Leicester, Ospreys and Clermont Auvergne for company.

Win-bonus points will be the requirement against Italian opposition for the three contenders in what are likely to be the two most fiercely contested groups, with only one team likely to emerge from each.

The two Scottish sides at least have hopes of reaching the last eight, even if few would put too many euros on it.

The one occasion Glasgow made it out of their group was 11 years ago, when there was a play-off stage before the quarter-finals. They lost 90-19 at Leicester. The joke doing the rounds at the time was that if you said the score quickly, it sounded like a draw.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are far from a laughing stock now, but the game north of the border could do with one of the two making a statement on the European stage to build on the progress made in the Magners League.

Wales came within a missed shoot-out kick of having their first finalist last season (Cardiff Blues) since the inaugural competition in 1996, the Blues and Ospreys both reaching the knock-out stages for a second successive year.

The capital side, without several key players, may struggle to match that feat this time round, but the Ospreys still have ample room for improvement with the quality at their disposal.

Brian O'Driscoll celebrates winning the Heineken Cup with Leinster at Murrayfield in May
Will Brian O'Driscoll be celebrating a second successive Leinster triumph next May?

"Leinster waited 14 years to win it," notes Ospreys captain Ryan Jones. "We have only been around for six. I think we are doing alright so far."

Nevertheless, Jones admits their dismal 43-9 quarter-final capitulation to Munster in Limerick last season "didn't sit well". "We learnt some pretty harsh lessons there," he added.

The biggest one, perhaps, that unless you finish top of your group and among the top four seeds, progressing beyond the quarter-finals will always be a tall order.

Getting out of their pool will be hard enough, but the Ospreys can take heart from the likes of Munster and Leinster - teams that kept knocking at the door before finally barging it down.

The history of the competition, especially in the past decade, suggests that once a side reaches the European summit, there is a good chance of them climbing the mountain again.

Leicester, Toulouse, Wasps and Munster have all tasted glory twice since the turn of the decade.

As the 24 participants embark on another European adventure this weekend, a second successive Leinster triumph, to this observer at least, looks the most likely outcome.

But who knows which parts the sponsor's tipple will refresh this year?


  • Comment number 1.

    Great blog, I know everyone keeps going on about Munster and Lienster as two of the favourites for the Hieneken Cup but dont count out Ulster this season. They have made great strides in the off season with new coach Brian McLaughlin reviving the team. Their performance last Friday against the Scarlets was the full package and its great to see a lot of the young boys breaking into the team. Once again Ulster have a very hard group with Edinburgh, Bath and Stade Francais, i just hope they turn some heads in Europe as they have been doing in the magners league.

  • Comment number 2.

    Mmmmm "don't count Ulster out", we'll see. Personally I do count my province out. Realistically Ulster should win tonight against Bath but after that I don't know. Ulster have already lost at home to Edinburgh so that does not bode well and I'd expect Stade to wipe the floor with everyone else in this pool. I can see Ulster possibly winning at home to Edinburgh and possibly ending our woeful record of not having won on English soil but that's as good as it gets.

    For me this years HEC is the usual suspects Leinster, Munster and the big boys in France with a possibility that one English team may get a favourable quarter-final draw and make the semis.

  • Comment number 3.

    I really hope Rugby doesn't fall into the same trap as football with the European events and end up with a boring and repetative set of teams sharing a competition that is only designed to win ratings on tv by squeezing out any club that is deemed as 'little'.

  • Comment number 4.

    Oops, too late

  • Comment number 5.

    Out of the English teams I can only see London Irish and Saints making inroads this season - I cannot see Leicester dominating a team whilst they are without Flood (not a big fan of Staunton, as he doesnt get the backline moving like it should do). Bath, Quins and Gloucester could struggle this season, due to off field antics and wholesale squad changes - nothing from early season suggests that they will challenge for the HC.

    Leinster ahve to be favourites, but surely there is no way that all of the French clubs can flop like they did last season? With all the money they have one of Toulouse, Clermont or Stade must be serious contenders this time round.

    Be interesting to see which Welsh team does the best out of their group - I cannot see Cardiff or Ospreys finishing top of their groups and with teh Scottish teams seemingly getting better too, its going to be a very close call this year!

  • Comment number 6.

    Im a gambling man but with such good quality and competitive teams in the running for the heineken cup im keeping my money in my pocket!

    I'd like to see edinburgh and glasgow do well being scottish and all, but my prediction is the winner will come from Leicester, munster or London Irish.

  • Comment number 7.

    blog was ok generally, but what a dismissive comment about edinburgh and glasgow, Edinburgh and Glasgow are far from a laughing stock now, but the game north of the border could do with one of the two making a statement on the European stage to build on the progress made in the Magners League.
    That is a total cop out and no reflection on their chances. you could say the same about any club "leicester have done well but need to perform to show their european pedigree". Do I get a job as a pundit now!

  • Comment number 8.

    Can anyone tell me how do Munster and Leinster qualify as two of the favourites?

  • Comment number 9.

    25 mins to read 4 lines, why should britain tremble?

  • Comment number 10.

    35, reading with the speed of a striking sloth!

  • Comment number 11.

    Savscot on point 8 possibly it may be that Leinster are the current champions and that Munster have won 2 out of the last 4.

  • Comment number 12.

    I think Mike Tindall is being mischievous suggesting Heineken Cup rugby is on a par with a Test match. If it was then surely these players would be excelling in international rugby, which they very often aren't. Northern Hemisphere sides still struggle against the top nations from Down Under, and the same in the Six Nations where England players who are considered fantastic in the Heineken Cup don't perform for their national side - Steffon Armitage was a classic case last season.

  • Comment number 13.

    jovial, Leinster maybe, Munster have lost 3 of their last 5 and lost one of their best players, one of the favourites?

  • Comment number 14.

    Yip savscot and it's amazing each year at around this time Munster go through a blip in form and then come back with a bang in the heiny.

  • Comment number 15.

    because Munster and Leinster are the strongest teams..simple..not just quality and size of squad, also have the experience of winning..

  • Comment number 16.

    The Irish are starting to dominate the competition, which is very impressive and belies the resources available to them as a snmaller country to both France and England. I think Leinster must be favourites and Munster are a machine, so likely winner to come from those two. French clubs will surely do better than last season, I cannot see one of their reps not making the final. English clubs look weak this year, Bath look out of their depth at this level, Gloucester are in disarray, Harlequins have suffered due to Bloodgate and aren't where they were last year. Leicester will always give a good account of themselves but Staunton is average, expect them to get through pool. Northampton look good, think they can reach KO phase and London Irish should also. But I don't see any of them winning. Welsh perhaps not as strong as last season, Cardiff weaker, Ospreys mercurial. Toulouse Vs Leinster final.

  • Comment number 17.

    On the Ulster Comments: Yes while we have improved this year from last, we still are not good enough to compete, witness the fact that each game we'v so far been able to put together around 40minutes of good rugby, which, as against edinburgh, is not enough to win matches at ML level never mind HC. Our defence at the moment is far too passive at times, and can let in very soft tries (versus edinburgh and the scarlets last week, where they scored two tries because our defence fell asleep and didnt track numbers).

    On Leinster and Munster being considered favourites: COME ON NOW, of course they're considered favourites, both while maybe lacking the depth of some english squads, ooze international class, and have proven track records in the past few years in both HC and ML...oh and not to mention Ireland won the grand slam and had (at the start) the largest lions contingent they've ever had...

  • Comment number 18.

    I reckon that Leinster will win, but from England, I think that the L Irish have the best team at the moment

  • Comment number 19.

    Not much love for London Irish among the comments. I think they are the English side most likely to shine, as they are a team that is growing and have picked up more experience of the big, pressure matches. Not sure they are strong enough to win, but could go to the semis and prove a tough obstacle.

  • Comment number 20.

    I think Munster are slight favourites this year. They have a relatively easy group which they will top so that means more than likely a home QF. They are never beaten in Thomond so they are more or less in the semis already. Not sure about leinster. While they were superb last week-have they peaked too soon? They played with all the intesity of a Heineken Cup semi final but it was only a Magners League match and I think tonights game could be very tough. Leinster need a bonus point win tonight and stop Irish from getting one.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    London Irish nice game good result

  • Comment number 23.

    I can't really understand what all this hype about munster and leinster is all about. fair play to leinster, as they played very well to lift the trophy last year and munster, however boring, are big game players, however this hasn't really been to case in the last couple of years. why is no one talking about either perpignan or especially toulouse!? perpignan showed their class in the top 14 final last year and toulouse are the most exciting team in world rugby and on their day could beat any nation let alone club. they're the only team to have won this cup three times and if you look at their bench that just shows what an exceptional team they are. they destroyed a sale team that didn't play badly and until the last five, had only scored three points. toulouse to win!

  • Comment number 24.

    Close call this season, could be any team that wins at the moment. The french clubs seem to be getting stronger as do the scottish. The Irish have been playing well all year and Leinster are the reigning champs. The welsh clubs seem to have had a bad start to the season, although the Dragons seem to have upped their game. After the blues beating quins on saturday their my favourate of the welsh clubs to win espeically after reaching the semis last year. But realisticly the final will be between teams from France and/or Ireland.

  • Comment number 25.

    I was impressed with Glasgows performance against Biaritz at the weekend but I don't think they will have enough.

    I do like the look of the Ospreys though

  • Comment number 26.

    'I can't really understand what all this hype about munster and leinster is all about. fair play to leinster, as they played very well to lift the trophy last year and munster, however boring, are big game players, however this hasn't really been to case in the last couple of years.'

    What the cr*p are you drinking! Leinster are the reigning champions and Munster won it the year before. How does your sentence on Munster 'this hasn't been the case in recent year' stand up when it is less than 18 months since they lifted the trophy and less than 6 since they reached the semi-final stage!!!!!! idiot!!

  • Comment number 27.

    This is a bit old now, any chance of updating our discussions?


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