Clubs ready for the thrills of Europe

Chris Hewett previews this weekend's start to the Heineken Cup and expects a repeat performance of last year's dramas
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The Independent Online
Cast your mind back to the bleak midwinter and wallow awhile in the great, spine-tingling moments of the 1997 Five Nations' Championship. You will not need the day off work - a few seconds will suffice - for apart from the brass-necked cheek of Arwel Thomas at Murrayfield, Lawrence Dallaglio's elephant-lunged Twickenham try against the French, the subtle perfection of Christophe Lamaison's performance in the same match, Jeremy Guscott's part-time brilliance in Cardiff and the majesty of Olivier Magne's Grand Slam score against the Scots at the Parc des Princes, last season's international showpiece was anything but.

Now compare and contrast the pure theatre generated by the Heineken Cup, which began as a half-cocked, Johnny-come-lately affair without rhyme or reason or, crucially, the modern-day oxygen of television coverage, but somehow evolved into an absolute show-stopper, something to place alongside the Super 12 extravaganza south of the equator and, if you prefer blood-and-guts drama to try-laden souffle, even put it to shame. Club versus country? Only one winner, it seems.

The whole European shooting match begins again this Saturday - the Leinster- Toulouse opener in Dublin and the Treviso-Pau confrontation in Italy go ahead, while the matches in Britain and France have been delayed, most by 24 hours - and the upbeat mood of organisers and participants alike suggests a bigger, better, more intense tournament.

Anyone who saw last season's matches between Wasps and Cardiff, Pontypridd and Bath, Cardiff and Bath, Pau and Leicester, Leicester and Toulouse or, especially, any fixture involving the eventual champions from Brive will raise an eyebrow at that statement, for those games were epic encounters that went right to rugby's heart and soul. They will not, however, dismiss the grandiose claims out of hand.

Quite why some inhabitants of Twickenham, the 15-man code's equivalent of Planet Zob, should continue to talk about creating a stepping stone between League and Test rugby when, quite palpably, we already have one remains a mystery. As Dallaglio, captain of a Wasps side strongly if not exclusively focused on making a better fist of their cross-border business this year, said yesterday: "Look at the programme and you will see matches that stand out in any company. Bath against Brive? Ourselves against Swansea? Fixtures of that magnitude create the bridge between club rugby and Tests by providing the step up in skill levels and intensity that, before the Heineken, was obviously missing."

Not everything in the garden is rosy, even though a big-money five-year broadcasting deal has been signed with BSkyB and the sponsors are pumping pounds 3.5m of their beer money into this year's competition, with a pounds 115,000 sweetener for the finalists. Dallaglio himself raised the vexed issue of qualification. "I'm not knocking the competition, but is it right that we should have to play 22 tough League matches to get in while the Irish provinces have only to beat Connacht to secure a place?" he asked with a degree of justification. And there is considerable discontent at the organisers' refusal to play the semi-finals on neutral territory.

Those, however, are minor quibbles. Roger Pickering, the tournament director, admitted that the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd was already considering a change in qualification regulations for the 1999-2000 campaign.

This season's tournament has itself been toughened by the introduction of a play-off system to decide three of the eight quarter-finalists. The five pool winners will automatically go through, but matches between the runners-up and the best third-placed side will be played on the weekend of 1 November as a competitive means of raising a quorum. Given that pool performances will be used to seed teams reaching the knock-out stage, complacency or laurel-resting will not be an option at any stage of the proceedings.

The French have won both competitions thus far, Toulouse triumphing in 1996 as a prelude to Brive's stunning smash-and-grab raid last season, and if the Tricolores contribute another finalist this time around, the match will take place on mainland Europe. If no French side makes it all the way, Twickenham will host the final (great news for Welsh supporters if Cardiff and Swansea share top billing).

Predictably, the bookmakers give the Scottish districts and Irish provinces something akin to a cat's hope in hell of reaching the sudden death phase, all six sides carrying odds of 100-1 or longer. Bath go in as marginal favourites over Toulouse - a decent bet at 4-1 - but on current form, Leicester look the strongest of the English contenders with Pau the dark horses from across the Channel and Cardiff a major threat from the far side of the Severn Bridge. And if that sounds like fence-sitting, you're dead right.

HEINEKEN CUP LINE-UP

Pool A: Leicester, Leinster, Milan, Toulouse.

Two clear favourites but only one automatic quarter-final place. The unforgiving format of this season's competition ensures two monumental Leicester-Toulouse collisions at Welford Road and Les Sept-Deniers and it is difficult to see either Leinster or Milan - strong up front and enhanced by the arrival from Calvisano of the brilliant Italian Test wing Paolo Vaccari but mortally wounded by the departure of Diego Dominguez to Stade Francais- gatecrashing the private party. Toulouse have lost Thomas Castaignede from their midfield but recruited Fabien Pelous, the superb No 8 from Dax, and the Test prop Franck Tournaire from Narbonne. Having lost to the Tigers in last season's semi-final, Gallic pyrotechnics are guaranteed.

Pool B: Glasgow, Swansea, Ulster, Wasps.

Swansea are blessed with all manner of talents outside the scrum, with Arwel Thomas and Scott Gibbs forming a natural iron fist, velvet glove midfield double act. St Helen's is, anyway, a genuine stronghold and a 100 per cent home return for the Welshmen is a distinct likelihood. Wasps are their most obvious threat and with Lawrence Dallaglio's English champions having a point or three to prove following an early departure from last season's tournament, the contests between the main contenders are difficult to call. Ulster will also be hard work, especially at Ravenhill, but the absence of their mainland-based internationals - David Humphreys, Jeremy Davidson and Paddy Johns among them - denies them a hard edge. And Glasgow? Whipping boys, sadly.

Pool C: Bath, Brive, Pontypridd, Scottish Borders.

Pick the bones out of this lot, if you can. This time last year, Bath considered themselves capable of winning the Heineken Cup in their sleep. Then they awoke to find Pontypridd and Cardiff flatly refusing to follow the Recreation Ground script. The West Countrymen will have their work cut out this time, too, with Ponty looking even sharper outside - Kevin Morgan and Gareth Wyatt possess scalding pace - and Brive, the champions, adding Olivier Magne and Lisandro Arbizu, class acts both, to their high-octane squad. The Frenchmen may have lost Gregori Kacala, the Brobdingnagian flanker from Gdansk, to Cardiff, but with Penaud, Lamaison, Venditti and the rest still on board, they will take some stopping. As for the Borders, hope springs eternal.

Pool D: Bourgoin, Cardiff, Harlequins, Munster.

If Pool C is the Pool of Death, this is the Pool of Not Feeling Terribly Well. Cardiff are spectacularly equipped for a tilt at the title, the arrival of Kacala and the return to fitness of Rob Howley underwriting their credentials, and with Alec Evans back as eminence grise, the Welsh aristocrats could go the whole way. But qualification will be tight if Bourgoin, newcomers to the competition, generate a head of steam. They have Laurent Leflamand on the wing, Stephane Glas in the centre and an effective old warhorse in Marc Cecillon at No 8. As Wasps discovered last season, Munster still enjoy kicking any well-heeled backsides they might encounter in Cork or Limerick so Quins, more well-heeled than most, really do have their work cut out.

Pool E: Caledonia, Llanelli, Pau, Treviso.

Welcome to le Stade du Hameau, where men are men, forwards are nasty and supporters chuck stones at anyone scoring a try against their local heroes. Yes, Pau are on the case again and that means one very edgy afternoon for each of their opponents. They can be wonderful, wild, wilful, or thoroughly wicked, depending on the circumstances, but the comparative weakness of their rivals suggests a knock-out place this time around, especially as the excellent Jean-Michel Gonzales has joined from Bayonne. Llanelli will be brave but lightweight and the Italians short of clout, so Caledonia are in pole position to wave the Scottish flag. The presence of class Lions forwards in the contrasting shapes of Tom Smith and Rob Wainwright gives them dark-horse status.

FIXTURES

(3.0 unless stated; all kick-offs local time)

POOL A: 6 Sept: Leinster v Toulouse. 12 Sept: Leinster v Leicester (5.30). 14 Sept: Milan v Toulouse (4.0). 20 Sept: Toulouse v Leicester (6.0); Milan v Leinster (4.0). 27 Sept: Leicester v Leinster; Toulouse v Milan (6.0). 4 Oct: Leicester v Toulouse (2.15); Leinster v Milan. 11 Oct: Toulouse v Leinster (6.0). 12 Oct: Milan v Leicester. TBA: Leicester v Milan.

POOL B: 7 Sept: Swansea v Wasps (2.15). 8 Sept: Ulster v Glasgow (7.0). 13 Sept: Swansea v Ulster (2.30). 14 Sept: Glasgow v Wasps. 21 Sept: Wasps v Ulster; Glasgow v Swansea. 27 Sept: Ulster v Swansea (2.30). 28 Sept: Wasps v Glasgow. 3 Oct: Ulster v Wasps (7.30). 4 Oct: Swansea v Glasgow (2.30). 12 Oct: Wasps v Swansea; Glasgow v ulster.

POOL C: 7 Sept: Pontypridd v Bath (3.15); Brive v Scottish Borders (8.30). 14 Sept: Scottish Borders v Bath (2.30); Brive v Pontypridd (3.30). 20 Sept: Scottish Borders v Pontypridd (7.0); Bath v Brive (2.15). 27 Sept: Bath v Scottish Borders; Pontypridd v Brive (2.15). 4 Oct: Pontypridd v Scottish Borders. 5 Oct: Brive v Bath (2.20). 11 Oct: Bath v Pontypridd (2.15). 12 Oct: Scottish Borders v Brive (2.30).

POOL D: 7 Sept: Harlequins v Munster; Bourgoin v Cardiff. 13 Sept: Cardiff v Munster (2.30); Harlequins v Bourgoin (2.15). 20 Sept: Cardiff v Harlequins (2.30); Munster v Bourgoin. 27 Sept: Munster v Cardiff; Bourgoin v Harlequins (6.05). 4 Oct: Bourgoin v Munster; Harlequins v Cardiff. 11 Oct: Cardiff v Bourgoin (2.30). 12 Oct Munster v Harlequins (4.30).

POOL E: 6 Sept Treviso v Pau (8.0). 7 Sept: Caledonia v Llanelli. 13 Sept: Pau v Llanelli (7.30). 14 Sept: Caledonia v Treviso. 20 Sept: Llanelli v Treviso (2.0). 21 Sept: Pau v Caledonia (7.30). 27 Sept: Llanelli v Pau (2.0); Treviso v Caledonia. 4 Oct: Treviso v Llanelli. 5 Oct: Caledonia v Pau. 11 Oct: Llanelli v Caledonia (2.0); Pau v Treviso (7.30).

1-2 Nov: Quarter-final play-offs.

8-9 Nov: Quarter-finals.

20-21 Dec: Semi-finals.

31 Jan: Final.

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