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
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvAs the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian on why he'll never bow to critics who habitually circle his work
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey outside Mo Nabbach’s M&M Hair Academy in west London before the haircut
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Keeper flaps at Nasri's late leveller, but Black Cat striker's two goals in 10 minutes had already done damage
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
News
Ethical matters: pupils during a philosophy lesson
educationTaunton School's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal