The road to Twickenham and the 2012 Heineken Cup final begins tonight – just a Nick Evans kick across the A316 from the headquarters of the Red Rose game. Evans will be directing operations in the home No 10 shirt at Twickenham Stoop as Harlequins, top of the Aviva Premiership with eight wins from eight, seek to extend their domestic form into Europe with a pool group opener against Connacht in the continent's premier club competition.
At the same time, Racing Metro and Cardiff Blues will be contesting a Pool Two fixture at the Stade Yves du Manoir in Paris. In all there are 12 pool fixtures over the next three days – the first steps for the continent's leading 24 clubs on the long-haul route to the final in south-west London on 19 May next year.
The last time the showpiece decider was held at Twickenham, two English clubs slugged it out for the right to claim the big silver pot. That was in 2007 when Wasps floored Leicester with a couple of sucker-punch throws to the front of the line-out, yielding trophy-winning tries for scrum-half Eoin Reddan and hooker Rafael Ibañez.
It was the third Heineken Cup final staged at English HQ and the previous two occasions also produced winners from the host nation, Northampton in 2000 and Wasps in 2004. So what price another English club being crowned champions of Europe at the home of English rugby?
Ladbrokes will give you odds of 8-1 against Leicester, rating the Tigers the best domestic bet, despite their lingering woes on the Premiership front: just two wins from eight after snatching a draw from the jaws of a 24-7 lead against London Irish at Welford Road last Saturday. Leinster, the holders, and Toulouse, the four-time winners, are joint favourites at 7-2. Justifiably so.
Northampton are only sixth in the betting, at 11-1, even though they had one hand on the trophy halfway through last season's final at the Millennium Stadium in May. Or quite possibly because of it. The Saints marched off with a 22-6 lead at the interval that day. When they marched back on, Jim Mallinder's men were hit by the combined effects of the rugby equivalent of the wall – as a marathon season on the domestic and European front suddenly took its toll – and a blue-shirted tide. They shipped 27 unanswered points as Leinster swept to a stunning turnaround victory, 33-22.
"I think I've only just put it behind me," Dylan Hartley, Northampton's captain and hooker, confessed. "I used to wake up in the morning thinking about the 'what ifs' and the opportunity we had."
According to Mallinder, Saints' director of rugby, the psychological bruising could prove beneficial in the campaign ahead. "I'd like to think we've learnt some lessons," he said. "I think great teams do need to be around each other and go through winning and losing together, so what we went through last season will stand us in good stead."
It will need to if Hartley, Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Co are to survive this season's group of mortality and make it through to the knockout stages. First up for the Saints tomorrow evening just happens to be a trip to Thomond Park, Limerick. Having last season failed to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in 13 years, Munster will be hungry to prove a point – and not just in their Pool One opener.
The cut-throat alley of a group also includes Castres – currently third in the French Top 14, behind Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne – and the region fancied to surf the Welsh World Cup wave. Scarlets have those bright young things Rhys Priestland, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams and the giant George North all in tow.
Not since Cardiff lost to Toulouse in the inaugural final in 1996 has a Welsh team reached the last two. Given the pool draws, Cardiff Blues – who have Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Gethin Jenkins in their ranks and Edinburgh, London Irish and Racing Metro in their group – would appear to have a fair chance of making the knockout stages. The same could be said of Ospreys, although they have Biarritz and Saracens for company in Pool Five.
Saracens, of course, are the reigning English champions and lie second behind Harlequins in the 2011-12 Premiership table. They could go anywhere in the competition with their difficult-to-beat, dynamic brand of play. Indeed, they are going to Cape Town on 14 January to play their "home" match against Biarritz.
It will be fascinating to see whether the South African-influenced dominant new force in English rugby can make headway on the Continent – or, rather, continents. Last season Sarries managed to win just one of their six pool matches but their group did include Leinster and Clermont Auvergne.
It will also be intriguing to see how the emerging Quins fare. Conor O'Shea's side have played some dynamic, high-tempo stuff of their own this season, carrying on from the tail end of last term, when they rolled over Munster at Thomond Park in the semi-final of the Amlin Challenge Cup and then beat Stade Français to win a dramatic final at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The big test for them will come in December, when they play Toulouse home and away. Toulouse – strengthened by the Springbok Gurthro Steenkamp in the front row and the former All Black Luke McAllister in the centres – will again start as the team to beat in what will be a drive for European title number five.
Leinster will be going for a third in four seasons. They will be without the injured Brian O'Driscoll for the pool stages but have enough in the locker to stay around to welcome back the Irish talisman for the business end of the competition.
The bookmakers don't often get it wrong. If you are going to bet on anything during the 17th season of Heineken Cup rugby, put your money on a Franco-Irish tussle for the trophy at Twickenham in May.
The six sets: Groups of death and a pool of peril
Castres, Munster, Northampton, Scarlets.
Opening fixtures Tomorrow: Scarlets v Castres (3pm), Munster v Northampton (6pm).
The pool of peril. For once, Munster start a European campaign unfancied, but they have Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, Doug Howlett... and Thomond Park. Castres are third in the Top 14 and Scarlets have Rhys Priestland and George North. Northampton, beaten finalists last season, will have proved their mettle if they get through as pool winners. Given such fierce competition, claiming one of the two qualifying spots available for pool runners-up will be difficult.
Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh, London Irish, Racing Metro.
Opening fixtures Tonight: Racing Metro v Cardiff Blues (8pm). Tomorrow London Irish v Edinburgh (1.30pm).
In their days as plain Cardiff, the Blues achieved the only final appearance by a Welsh side. That was in the inaugural competition, back in 1995-96, when they lost to Toulouse in extra time at the Arms Park. With the Wales captain, Sam Warburton, back after suspension for their opener in Paris tonight – and the likes of Jamie Roberts, Gethin Jenkins and Leigh Halfpenny in their squad – they look serious contenders for a place in the last eight at least.
Bath, Glasgow, Leinster, Montpellier.
Opening fixtures Tomorrow: Montpellier v Leinster (1.30pm). Sunday: Glasgow v Bath (12.45pm).
Even without Brian O'Driscoll in the pool stages, Leinster should have too much in their locker for the rest. Bath will have their World Cup-winning fly-half Stephen Donald directing operations on the field, and Sir Ian McGeechan, a winner with Northampton in 2000 and Wasps in 2007, doing so off it. It might not be enough for the 1998 winners. Glasgow, with Richie Gray in the second row and John Barclay on the openside flank, have a spanner-in-the-works threat about them.
Aironi, Clermont Auvergne, Leicester, Ulster.
Opening fixtures Tomorrow: Aironi v Leicester (1.30pm), Ulster v Clermont (3.40pm).
Leicester have yet to get into their stride post-World Cup, their second-half step forward at Sale a fortnight ago having been followed by the backward step of a lost 17-point lead against London Irish last week. Write off the Tigers at your peril. Le crunch for them will come with back-to-back games against Clermont in December, although they cannot afford to be in lead-slipping form when Ulster visit Welford Road next week. They will probably need a bonus-point start away to Aironi too.
Treviso, Biarritz, Ospreys, Saracens.
Opening fixtures Tomorrow: Ospreys v Biarritz (3.40pm). Sunday: Saracens v Treviso (3pm).
The test will come on the road for Saracens as the English champions look for European success. They will have an excellent chance of progressing if they can hold their own away to Biarritz and Ospreys – and indeed on home-from-home soil, given that they have chosen to host the Basques in Cape Town and the Welsh region at Wembley. Biarritz, twice beaten finalists, have two major plus points. They are called Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili.
Connacht, Gloucester, Harlequins, Toulouse
Opening fixtures Tonight: Harlequins v Connacht (8pm). Sunday: Toulouse v Gloucester (3pm).
Toulouse are four-time winners and have failed to make it out of the pool stages just once in eight years. They have Guy Noves, the Alex Ferguson of European rugby, directing operations off the field and Thierry Dusautoir, the world player of the year, doing so on it. They will start favourites, although the burgeoning, as-yet-unbeaten Harlequins will relish the prospect of taking them on. And don't forget Gloucester. No one – not even Toulouse – will relish the prospect of going to Kingsholm.
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