England's humdrum performance in the World Cup appears matched by their clubs' expectations in Europe. "We'll need a lot of luck as there are other clubs with more resources," said Conor O'Shea, Harlequins' director of rugby – hardly a statement of confidence from the team on top of the Premiership going into the first round of the Heineken Cup.
The seven English clubs' captains and coaches gathered with their Welsh and Scottish counterparts at Twickenham, where May's final will be held. In 2007 Wasps became England's sixth Heineken Cup winners in 10 attempts (English clubs did not take part in 1995-96 and 1998-99), but now bullish talk has been replaced by grumbles that French clubs have more money and Irish sides are betterable to organise their season.
"I just want us to give a good account of ourselves," said Sir Ian McGeechan, the Bath director of rugby, who in theory is looking for a unique hat-trick, having won with Northampton in 2000 and Wasps in 2007. Stephen Donald, Bath's All Black fly-half, could make his debut at Glasgow next Sunday.
Jim Mallinder of North-ampton told us in these pages last May he would like to win one or both of the Premiership and Heineken Cup before moving to any job with England – it was just before his side were beaten in the semi-finals of the former and the final of the latter. The Premiership tie at Leicester was a trial of strength; the Heineken final in Cardiff was a test of all-round quality, and Leinster had too much of that.
"I would like to think we learned some quite significant lessons," said Mallinder. "Great teams need to go through winning and losing togetherand the experience of last year will stand us in good stead. But we know how difficult it will be, just looking at our group."
This is Pool One, and in it Munster will be smarting at last season's first failure to make it to the knockout stage since 1998. Also in the group are Scarlets, who have the fly-half Rhys Priestland in a back line viewed as ''the best in Europe at the moment'' by their captain, the Wales hooker Matthew Rees . Castres were beaten home and away by Northampton last year, as the Saints earned a home quarter- and semi-final. Saints are rated by the bookmakers a 10-1 shot behind Leicester at 7-1 and the two favourites, Leinster and Toulouse.
On the upside, the arrival of the prop Paul Doran-Jones is one of a handful to strengthen the Saints squad, while the flanker Tom Wood is seething at spending most of the World Cup in the stands, watching Lewis Moody play with a bandaged knee.
"Tom understands the reasons, if not agreeing with them, and he wants to put it right," said Mallinder. "He wants to show everybody what a good-quality player he is and the Heineken Cup will be a massive stage and opportunity for him to do that."
Though Mallinder revealed his willingness to coach England here six months ago, and confirmed it in midweek, the needs of the national side could not be further from his mind at present. "We can't worry about playing a style that suits England," he said. "Everybody in the Premiership plays to be successful for the club. I don't necessarily think it's the best way for England, but it's the structureof our system."
O'Shea's mostly English squad are in with Connacht, Gloucester and the four-times winners Toulouse. "We won't be able to compete ever with Toulouse, Clermont, to an extent Leinster, in terms of budgets." O'Shea said. "The teams with the deep squads are always going to have the advantage. But you can make up for the size of the wallet with the size of the heart.
"If we can keep our squad healthy and introduce young guys people don't know about we have a chance. Our fellas are desperate to playagainst Toulouse."
The draw: Battles of Britain – what the home teams face
Pool winners and two best runners-up qualify for the quarter-finals.
Pool 1: Castres, Munster, Northampton, Scarlets
Not the ideal pool for an overdue Scarlets resurgence. Eeny, meeny, miney... go for Munster.
Pool 2: Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh, London Irish, Racing Métro
Accommodating pool is an amazing reward for Irish's sixth place in the Premiership. Blues to sneak it.
Pool 3: Bath, Glasgow, Leinster, Montpellier
Leinster, champions twice in the past three seasons, are beatable by Bath. But probably won't be.
Pool 4: Aironi, Clermont Auvergne, Leicester, Ulster
Aironi no pushovers, Ulster dark horses and Clermont formidable. Tigers may need runners-up spot.
Pool 5: Biarritz, Ospreys, Saracens, Treviso
Italian weakness usually sends two teams through. Maybe not this time. Ospreys to upset the odds.
Pool 6: Connacht, Gloucester, Harlequins, Toulouse
Toulouse and one English team to qualify at the expense of the first-time participants Connacht.Reuse content