Considering the inaugural tournament attracted rather fewer than 100,000 spectators in total, not even the most begrudging of the Rugby Football Union's dwindling band of flat-earthers could conceivably dispute that the sport has a 24-carat success on its hands. The 1995-96 production featured only a dozen teams, none of them from England or Scotland, and a mere 15 matches. Last season, there were 24 teams and 79 games. Yet the argument holds. In 1999-2000, when the Heineken embraced its current format, the pool phase was watched by around 430,000 supporters. In 2004-05, pulling power was up by very nearly 70 per cent.
Yet while the interest grows, so, too, does the gap between the headline acts and the supporting cast. Wales have not produced a semi-finalist since Llanelli made it to the penultimate round five seasons ago, and could not even manage a quarter-finalist last time out. The Scots have contributed one team to the knock-out phase in eight attempts, which is one more than Italy, although Treviso generally make a nuisance of themselves in the group stage. Few people seriously expect any of this to change between now and showpiece day at the Millennium Stadium in the third week of May.
Worse still, there is no obvious prospect of the Irish provinces registering a meaningful impact on the business end of the tournament. Leinster, under the Australian coach Michael Cheika, and Munster, who have signed a couple of new centres in the big-name rugby league recruit Gary Connolly and the highly regarded South African Trevor Halstead to go alongside their more familiar Lions second-row pairing of Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, are capable of making the initial cut, but do not look remotely sharp enough to trouble the scorers come the spring.
Indeed, there are mutterings in Ireland that the obsession with the fortunes of the national side - an obsession that has proved spectacularly fruitless thus far - has proved counter-productive. Teams win games by playing once a week, not by training themselves into oblivion. When Leinster met Leicester at Lansdowne Road in last season's quarter-final, only one side looked remotely match-hard. Needless to say, it was not the home team, who had not performed in anger for weeks. The way the Irish organise themselves, there is more chance of spotting Lord Lucan galloping down Grafton Street on Shergar than of seeing Brian O'Driscoll play anything resembling a full season's worth of rugby.
France and England - loftily condemned as "rogue states" by those members of the International Rugby Board who fear and loathe the financial autonomy of independently financed professional clubs - are the ones who have it right. Look at the statistics, if you require confirmation. Only once has the stranglehold on the title been broken, by Ulster in the year of the English boycott. France have never had fewer than three quarter-finalists since quarter-finals began in 1995-96 and have claimed at least two semi-final places in each of the last three seasons. If England's clubs are the only ones capable of holding them, the rest have two chances: slim and none. And slim is out of town.
Even the English are behind the eight-ball. It was predicted in these pages two and a half years ago that the more ambitious French clubs, awash with private money and secure in the luxurious surroundings of their publicly owned stadiums, would rule the roost for some time to come, and although Wasps somehow diddled Toulouse out of the main prize at Twickenham in 2004, there is precious little evidence to contradict that view. Two of the last three finals have been Tricolore affairs and with seven high-class teams from Le Championnat contesting this tournament, there is every likelihood of something similar in Cardiff in seven months' time.
Top-level imports from 15 countries have been included in the squads recently confirmed by the French candidates, but the power on the far side of the Channel is not purely the result of a glut of international-class foreigners; on average, the Welsh regions have a higher number of Test players per squad. It is the quality of the undecorated legions that allows the strongest of the French sides to stand apart. In two hugely significant positions, prop and centre, there is talent to burn, much of it fresh to British and Irish eyes.
Toulouse, the most successful European adventurers of them all, will surely make their presence felt once again, but the Basques of Biarritz, the Catalans of Perpignan and the Parisians of Stade Français are every bit as obsessed with Heineken Cup glory now as the pioneering inaugural winners were in the middle years of the last decade. The reigning champions may have thought of it first, but they are now one of a crowd. A French crowd.
From the group of death to a Hammer horror set. A tale of suspense beckons
Castres, Munster, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Sale
Castres may or may not be the weakest of the French septet, but they are nobody's idea of a pushover. Come to think of it, neither is anyone else in this highly competitive group. Munster, it is said, are not the team of yore, but they are going great guns in the Celtic League and are invariably up for this competition. The Dragons, meanwhile, were good enough to beat Leicester in the Powergen Cup. And Sale? A class act in virtually all departments, with an overpowering whiff of the Gauloise about them. Their Francophile approach could be a winner.
Last eight tip: Sale, fitness permitting.
Calvisano, Cardiff, Leeds, Perpignan
By some distance the least gripping of the groupings. One Italian side always finds itself strapped to the altar as a sacrificial offering to the rugby gods, and it is Calvisano's turn this year. Leeds are not much stronger, judging by their results to date, while Cardiff sneaked into the competition via the repêchage route. All this leaves the field clear for Perpignan, the combustible Catalans with a home record to die for. Finalists in 2003, they have already beaten three of their fellow French contenders in this season's domestic championship.
Last eight tip: Perpignan, without breaking sweat.
Clermont Auvergne, Leicester, Ospreys, Stade Français
The kind of "group of death" that might have tickled the fancy of Edgar Allan Poe, so tortuous is it in its make-up. By English standards, Leicester are wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice; by French standards, they are mere paupers. Both Stade Français, who inflicted a first defeat of the season on Toulouse in front of 80,000 spectators last weekend, and Clermont Auvergne have spent heavily in pursuit of a European title, and the former look well equipped to go all the way. And the Ospreys? Riddled with injury, they should start praying.
Last eight tip: Stade Français and their millions.
Biarritz, Saracens, Treviso, Ulster
This may be interesting. Biarritz could, and probably should, have won the title last year, having turned in 40 minutes of the most exquisite rugby at Welford Road before putting paid to both Wasps and Munster. In the end, they were single-handedly undone by Christophe Dominici of Stade Français - a fate common to many down the years, but not something the Basques found easy to accept, none the less. Can they gird their loins again, or will three awkward away trips be too much? Whoever wins at Ravenhill will probably progress.
Last eight tip: Biarritz, in a dogfight.
Bath, Bourgoin, Glasgow, Leinster
Three of these sides fought out the pool stage last season, Glasgow being the exception. Bath chucked away their home game with Leinster, while Bourgoin stopped bothering after losing a tight one at the Recreation Ground. The Frenchmen, freakishly strong in Le Championnat despite their relative impoverishment, swear they will try this time round, not least because the tournament authorities gave them both barrels over their behaviour 12 months ago. Leinster, perennial underachievers, have the personnel to prosper, but may miss out.
Last eight tip: Bath, if they win in Dublin tomorrow.
Edinburgh, Llanelli, Toulouse, Wasps
Ouch. If the Leicester-Stade Français group might have been created by the man responsible for The Pit and the Pendulum, this deadly gathering should have Peter Cushing and Vincent Price in the starring roles. Toulouse and Wasps contributed to a marvellous final in 2004 and are rightly seen as the rugby aristocrats of their respective countries; Llanelli have a proud record in this tournament and are just beginning to set sail again after a season or so in the doldrums; Edinburgh, who beat Toulouse last year, have improved once again. Unfathomable.
Last eight tip: Toulouse - and maybe Wasps too.Reuse content