Put your hat on Irish or French lifting Cup at home of rugby

Three previous Twickenham finals provided English winners but the smart money says it won't happen again

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

Pool one

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.

Pool two

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.

Pool three

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.

Pool four

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.

Pool five

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.

Pool six

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.

Simon Turnbull

Suggested Topics
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
News
His band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering