The road to Twickenham and the 2012 Heineken Cup final begins tonight – just a Nick Evans kick across the A316 from the headquarters of the Red Rose game. Evans will be in the home No 10 shirt at Twickenham Stoop as Harlequins, top of the Aviva Premiership, seek to extend their domestic form into Europe with a pool group opener against Connacht.
At the same time, Racing Metro and Cardiff Blues will contest a Pool Two game at the Stade Yves du Manoir in Paris. In all there are 12 pool fixtures in the next three days – the first steps for the continent's leading 24 clubs on the route to the final at Twickenham on 19 May next year.
The last time the decider was held at Twickenham, two English clubs slugged it out for the silver pot, in 2007 when Wasps floored Leicester. It was the third Heineken Cup final at English HQ and the previous two occasions also produced winners from the host nation, Northampton in 2000 and Wasps in 2004. So what price another English club being crowned champions of Europe?
Ladbrokes offer odds of 8-1 against Leicester, rating them the best domestic bet, despite their Premiership woes. Leinster, the holders, and Toulouse, the four-time winners, are joint favourites at 7-2. Justifiably so.
Northampton are only sixth in the betting, at 11-1, even though they had one hand on the trophy halfway through last season's final at the Millennium Stadium in May. Or quite possibly because of it. The Saints surrendered a 22-6 interval lead that day as Leinster swept to a stunning turnaround victory, 33-22.
First up for the Saints tomorrow is a trip to Thomond Park, Limerick. Having last season failed to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in 13 years, Munster will be hungry to prove a point. Their cut-throat group also includes Castres and the region fancied to surf the Welsh World Cup wave, Scarlets.
Given the pool draws, Cardiff Blues – who have Edinburgh, London Irish and Racing Metro in their group – would appear to have a fair chance of making the knockout stages. The same could be said of Ospreys, although they have Biarritz and Saracens for company in Pool Five.
Saracens, of course, are the reigning English champions and lie second in the 2011-12 Premiership table. They could go anywhere in the competition and indeed are going to Cape Town on 14 January to play their "home" match against Biarritz.
It will also be intriguing to see how the emerging Quins fare. Their big test will come in December, when they play Toulouse home and away. Toulouse will again be the team to beat as they drive for European title No 5. Leinster will be going for a third in four seasons, though they will be without the injured Brian O'Driscoll for the pool stages.
The bookmakers don't often get it wrong. If you are going to bet on anything, put your money on a Franco-Irish tussle at Twickenham in May.Reuse content