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.

Weekend fixtures

Today

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

Tomorrow

P4 Northampton v Glasgow, 12:45pm

P2 Toulouse v Leicester, 3pm

P6 Sale v Cardiff Blues, 12.45pm

P6 Toulon v Montpellier, 8pm

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
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

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform