Tall order again for English to make dent in Heineken Cup
A cynic might draw a simple conclusion from the fact that English clubs will do extremely well to win half of their six matches in the opening round of the Heineken Cup: namely, that the ever-increasing difficulty of making sense of Europe's elite club competition explains the Premiership contingent's burning desire to change the rules of engagement. Harlequins should see off a Dimitri Yachvili-less Biarritz at the Stoop this evening, while Northampton are clear favourites to beat Glasgow at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow. Beyond that? Um.
Yet this is surely as it should be. Everyone finds this tournament challenging: yes, even Leinster, who have won the trophy three times in the last four years and are attempting to break new ground by completing a hat-trick. In the 2011 final, they would not have overturned a 22-6 interval deficit and prevailed over Northampton but for wondrous contributions from Jonathan Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll. Last season, they might easily have lost to Clermont Auvergne in the last four.
Ospreys have had internationals coming out of their ears – Lee Byrne, Shane Williams, James Hook, Mike Phillips, and so on – but we still await their presence in the semis. (Swansea, the region's club equivalent back in the day, once made it to the penultimate stage, but that was when dinosaurs roamed the earth). Biarritz, Clermont, Perpignan and Stade Français have all given it their best shots, even their best fusillades, and come up short. Toulon, who have more financial muscle than anyone, did not even qualify for last term's competition.
The English, once masters of all they surveyed in cross-border rugby, are feeling vulnerable, the poor petals. They wilt at the first whiff of French spending power and cower at the prospect of facing top-notch Irish provinces who have nursed their best players through the early stages of the Pro12 League in order to maximise their effectiveness now. According to Richard Cockerill, the rugby director at Leicester, the player-management system in the Emerald Isle is a hugely significant factor. "Given the choice between more money and the ability to rest players, I'd take the second option," he said recently.
But Northampton proved two seasons ago that a well-orchestrated campaign, underpinned by some luck on the injury front, can take a team a very long way indeed. The Saints had some of that luck yesterday when they were able to declare their influential captain, Dylan Hartley, fit for the meeting with Glasgow – a remarkable development, given that the Test hooker suffered a fractured eye socket a mere 15 days ago. If Hartley stays in one piece, Courtney Lawes puts together a string of games and the flanker Tom Wood rediscovers his best form, the Midlanders may yet win their group and push on deep into the knockout stage.
Quins, in the softest of the six groups, will be bitterly disappointed if they mess up, and the restoration of the Samoan powerhouse Maurie Fa'asavalu to the starting back row for the visit of the Basques suggests the English champions are serious about progressing. Saracens also have a decent chance of making something of themselves, although today's visit to Edinburgh is more than a little awkward. Many a good side, Toulouse included, have found themselves dead and buried in the Murrayfield mausoleum.
England's remaining contenders are up against it this weekend and are likely to stay up against it for the duration. Exeter, newcomers to this level, could not have imagined a more punishing start: in Dublin against a Leinster side missing the likes of Rob Kearney, Gordon D'Arcy and Sean O'Brien through injury but still able to field 11 of the players who marmalised Ulster in last season's final. Sale? The Premiership's bottom feeders have not found a way to win this season, any more than they have found a way of making proper use of Danny Cipriani, who remains on the bench for tomorrow's home game with Cardiff Blues.
As for Leicester, two-time winners and as aspirational as ever… well, they're in Toulouse for a meeting with the full glitterati: Poitrenaud, Clerc, McAlister, Dusautoir, blah blah. The very best of British to them.
P1 Edinburgh v Saracens, 1.35pm
P1 Racing Metro v Munster, 1.35pm
P3 Zebre v Connacht, 1.35pm
P3 Harlequins v Biarritz, 6pm
P5 Leinster v Exeter, 3.40pm
P5 Clermont Auvergne v Scarlets, 3.40pm
P4 Northampton v Glasgow, 12:45pm
P2 Toulouse v Leicester, 3pm
P6 Sale v Cardiff Blues, 12.45pm
P6 Toulon v Montpellier, 8pm
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