Stan Hey: 6-5 Against

Irish sides struggle against the odds to savour Heineken
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The Independent Online

From one cup to another. While the Ryder version occupied an intense four days of our lives, rugby's Heineken Cup, which began with three matches last night, sprawls across eight months until it reaches its final next May in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium – another victory for Wales as a sporting host.

French and Irish teams have dominated the cup of late, and it is a reasonable bet that three of the semi-finalists will be Toulouse, Leinster and Munster – respectively 4-1 (Boylesports), 20-1 (sportingbet) and 12-1 (Betfred) to bag the trophy.

But the big prices about the Irish teams reflect the toughness of the Pools they are in. Leinster plunge into the "Pool of Death" with reigning French champions Clermont-Auvergne, current Top 14 leaders Racing Metro and Premiership grinders Saracens.

Munster will be at Premiership leaders London Irish today, before tackling Magner's League champions Ospreys and the improving Toulon. And they must do this without international scrum-half Tomas O'Leary, out with a thumb injury.

The betting suggests that Leicester (15-2, Paddy Power) and Clermont (10-1, Stan James) are the threats to Toulouse, who start their campaign with what would once have been a classic encounter against Wasps tomorrow. The Londoners, in recovery mode, will be looking at damage limitation.

Clermont face Saracens (40-1, Totesport) this afternoon, while Leicester should ease through Pool 5. Other enticing games include Toulon v Ospreys today and Bath v Biarritz tomorrow.

But it is £20 on Toulouse to win again, with £5 each-way (18-1 Betfred) on Amlin Cup holders Cardiff Blues to reach the green, green grass of home.