Entente discordiale: time for English clubs to prove they can end French rule
As the Heineken Cup kicks off, Premiership sides face a tough test to upset the continental elite's growing dominance
In one sense, the performance of the English clubs in last season's Heineken Cup demonstrated a profound understanding of the meaning of Europe: they were as flat as the Netherlands, as anonymous as Luxembourg and as bankrupt as Greece. According to the men who run rugby at Premiership level, it was nothing more than a "blip" – a word no doubt heard in the boardroom of Lehmann Brothers when business first took a turn for the worse. It was no "blip", as the statistics demonstrate all too clearly.
The English contingent participated in only five of the first seven Heineken Cup tournaments from 1995: those renowned visionaries at the Rugby Football Union prevented them playing in the first year; the clubs stopped themselves playing three years later. The return? Four titles, at a delivery rate of 80 per cent. The record since 2002 tells a very different story: two victories in eight attempts, both by Wasps. Over the same period, there have been three all-French finals.
Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, excuses last term's damp-squibbery by pointing to the parlous state in which the English contenders found themselves at the start of the competition. He has a point, but not much of one. Bath and Harlequins were certainly suffering after months of scandal-soaked humiliation – drug abuse and accompanying chicanery at the Recreation Ground; the fake-blood affair at the Stoop – and Sale were in a bad way for more respectable reasons, having seen some of the best players in the world disappear from the payroll. But London Irish, Leicester and Northampton were all in good shape at this point 12 months ago, sitting snugly in the top half of the domestic table.
On that basis, the English find themselves in "no excuses" territory this time. Of the six qualifiers – a reduction of one, thanks to the French domination of the 2009-10 tournament – only Wasps occupy a lowly league position, and they have been placed in the most sympathetic of the six Heineken pools. By and large, it is the best of the Premiership who will be mixing it with the French, the Celts and the newly empowered Italians over the coming months. Even McCafferty admits he will be concerned if the clubs he represents fail to improve on the single quarter-final place they managed last time out.
It is unfortunate for the English that the most vibrant clubs in the country, London Irish and Saracens, find themselves in groups guaranteed to stretch them at least to the limit, and quite possibly beyond. The Exiles, who have a two-point lead at the top of the Premiership after the first tranche of matches, must find a way of dealing with Munster, Ospreys and Toulon, for whom Jonny Wilkinson is scoring points by the bucketload. Saracens? They are every bit as unlucky in terms of the draw. Racing Metro, cleverly coached by Pierre Berbizier, are the form team in France while Clermont Auvergne, positively dripping with capped personnel, are favoured by many to make a first Heineken Cup final appearance in May. The fourth side? Why, it's Leinster, Brian O'Driscoll and all. So that's all right, then.
If either club find their way into the knockout stage, it will be a triumph. At least London Irish, who beat Leinster in Dublin a year ago, have the opportunity to make a similarly positive start by beating Munster in front of a big Madejski Stadium crowd tomorrow night. "The aspect we got wrong last season was the emotional one," admits Toby Booth, their head coach. "Winning games at this level is about being mentally right, and that means recovering properly from one week to the next. We've spoken about this a lot recently, and I think we understand now how much that victory in Dublin took out of us, and how it fed into our home defeat by Scarlets a few days later. We're more aware of the emotional demands this time."
Both the Exiles and Saracens might have been given more of an even break had the Heineken Cup administrators not introduced their ill-conceived European ranking system and based the pool draw upon it. Initially designed to protect the powerful from the powerful – in the pre-ranking era, barely a season went by without Wasps bleating about the iniquity of finding a Leicester or a Toulouse in their group – the system has backfired magnificently, thanks to the sudden rise of Toulon and Racing Metro as serious forces in the French game.
These sides, currently among the strongest anywhere in Europe, are the fourth of four in their respective groups – a bad joke that their competitors will find anything but amusing. There again, there are laughs to be had right through the rankings. Montauban, who have gone bust, and the Italian club Crociati, who did not exist in their present form as recently as four months ago, are as we speak placed higher than the Parisians of Racing Metro, as are... er... Bristol, who failed to beat the giants of Esher a couple of weeks back. And Worcester, currently playing second-tier rugby after last season's relegation from the Premiership? Suffice to say they are still rated above Toulon. This, you could not make up.
One thing the draw cannot affect is the way referees control matches, and therein may lie a degree of English salvation. The tournament grandees are insisting that this season's European matches be controlled according to the latest International Rugby Board directives, which are definitely in force on this side of the Channel but rather less evident in France. As one Premiership coach remarked last weekend: "If I see a French team and an English ref on the same pitch, I'll be straight on the phone to the bookie. They'll be penalised off the field."
Yet even if this comes to pass, the Premiership contingent will still have to find a way past the likes of Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Leinster and Munster – teams who can afford to prioritise Europe over and above their commitments to the Magners League. A first English winner since 2007? Don't hold your breath.
How English clubs slipped
* English clubs reached the Heineken Cup final in each of the first five tournaments they contested, but in only three of the eight competitions since.
* There have been three all-French finals since the competition adopted a six-pool format in 1999-2000. The only all-English final was in 2007.
* England's clubs are being outperformed by the Irish provinces, who have claimed three titles in the last five years.
* England's six titles make them the most successful European nation, but only one of those victories was gained in the last half-dozen years.
Who's fizzing and who's flat: Heineken Cup pool guide
Failed to qualify last year. Dropped into then won the Challenge Cup, becoming first Welsh side to win a European competition.
Previous best in the Heineken Cup is an appearance in the 2002 semi-finals. Finished fifth in last year's French Top 14.
Last year's sixth-place finish in the Magners League was their worst for three seasons.
Enjoying a solid start to the season, winning four out of five and sitting second in the Aviva Premiership.
Chris Hewett's verdict This time last season, Castres were setting a hot pace in French championship rugby. Now, they occupy a place well below the fold. A fading force? Not exactly. Unbeaten at home this season – they already have Toulouse on their list of scalps – they have also been highly competitive in Toulon and at Stade Français. Assuming they take this tournament seriously, they will be very hard to beat down in the Midi-Pyrenees. All the same, it should boil down to an Anglo-Welsh scrap. The team doing the most professional job on Edinburgh at the soulless expanse of Murrayfield may get the verdict.
Most likely winner Cardiff Blues, just about.
Three-times quarter-finalists, who won the French Top 14 final last season after finishing third in the table.
Last year's Magners League champions and one of three Irish teams to have appeared in every Heineken Cup.
Paris-based side who have only once featured in the Challenge Cup, making first-ever Heineken Cup appearance.
Lost the Premiership final last year, but hope that adding David Strettle might boost their European credentials.
Chris Hewett's verdict Not so much the group of death as the group of the hung, drawn and quartered. Racing Metro, the "unknown quantities", are doing so well in their domestic Top 14 competition that 13 teams are currently below them. Any side boasting Mirco Bergamasco, Hernandez and Chabal will not stay unknown for long. Leinster have had a scruffy few weeks, but are never less than a threat in this environment. And the other two? Let's put it this way: Clermont are the reigning French champions, while Saracens would be the reigning English ones but for a moment's distraction at Twickenham back in May.
Most likely winner Er. Um. Help.
Currently sit top of the Premiership, but have only progressed beyond the Heineken Cup quarter-finals once.
Dual winners who are without injured Paul O'Connell. Only twice failed to reach semi-finals since 1999-2000 season.
Last season's Magners League runners-up, who hope finally to progress past the quarter-finals.
Jonny Wilkinson's team reached the Challenge Cup final last year. Starting first-ever Heineken Cup campaign.
Chris Hewett's verdict For God's sake! If Pool 2 is a brute, this is every bit as barbarous. London Irish can reasonably claim to be the form side in England while Ospreys, holders of the Magners League title, are the closest thing Wales has to a team of all the talents. Munster's record – nine semi-final appearances in 11 seasons – speaks for itself while Toulon are both the richest and most ambitious club in France. Any side managing a victory on the road will be in the pound seats come the final round, and current trends suggest that Swansea and Limerick are the strongholds least likely to fall.
Most likely winner Maybe Ospreys... maybe not.
New to the tournament, the Italians have bolstered their squad with the experienced Kiwi No 8 Nick Williams.
After struggling early on last season, enjoyed a late surge up the table. Haven't won Heineken Cup since 1998.
Scraped into Heineken Cup qualification due to Toulouse's win in last year's competition after finishing seventh in Top 14.
Champions in 1999 and qualified despite third-from-bottom finish in the Magners League last season.
Chris Hewett's verdict A Heineken Cup trip to Belfast used to be about as much fun as a 10-mile hike across broken glass. Ulster have had their problems in recent years, but they are fast re-establishing Ravenhill's reputation as a bad place to go and have the look of potential quarter-finalists. With Bath in hit-and-miss mode – their superannuated tight forwards are more likely to own a bus pass than throw a million-dollar pass – Biarritz are best placed to mount a challenge. The Basques do not play the most attractive rugby, or even much rugby at all, but their record in this competition is very solid.
Most likely winner Ulster or Biarritz. Perhaps both.
Have been relying on Billy Twelvetrees so far this season after injuries to Toby Flood and Jeremy Staunton.
Last year's first placed Top 14 team who went on to lose French final to Clermont.
Three-times semi-finalists but have only progressed from the pool stage once in the last six attempts.
Have already beaten Welsh and Irish opposition at home this season, but have never progressed further than the pool stages.
Chris Hewett's verdict On the face of it, this pool should throw up two qualifiers: the Midlanders and the Catalans. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and all sorts of problems emerge. Scarlets won four of their six matches last season and are slowly rediscovering the best of themselves while Treviso, past masters of the unexpected mugging on home soil, are far stronger now they have been elevated to "super club" status. Perpignan are good bets to win all three home games, but their inability to get their heads around life away from Stade Aimé Giral may open the door for Leicester, who see knockout qualification as a minimum requirement.
Most likely winner Leicester, after the odd scare.
Have never made it past the quarter-finals, but finished above Newport-Gwent Dragons in last year's pool.
Perennial outsiders whose main ambition will be to qualify from their group for the first time.
Heavily fancied defending champions, who have made the final in five of the last eight seasons.
Dual winners and six-times league champions currently yet to hit top gear in the Premiership.
Chris Hewett's verdict Even the weakest group has its patches of quicksand hidden away in the undergrowth. Toulouse, the holders, will surely make it through, with Wasps as one of the two second-placed qualifiers, but either one of them could make a hash of it in Glasgow, despite the Scots' miserable run of results in the Magners League. Let's face it: Firhill on a wet Friday night is no one's idea of a party. Rodney Parade is not much fun either, and while the Dragons are struggling every bit as badly as Glasgow, they usually give someone a hurry-up down there on the banks of the Usk.
Most likely winner Toulouse first, Wasps next.
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