Eurovision strong contest: Heineken Cup 2007-08 kicks off

Despite the usual bickering, the toughest club competition in the world is in rude health, writes Chris Hewett. That is why the best of the best are flocking to test themselves in it
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The Independent Online

That which the rugby gods wish to destroy, they first make successful. This year's World Cup – without doubt the most captivating of the six played since the International Board clenched its knees, gritted its teeth and sanctioned the first tournament in New Zealand two decades ago – was so obviously a hit that its custodians think the format should be ripped up and replaced by something much duller, while England, who somehow became involved in a final even the players considered unreachable, have done nothing but argue among themselves since they walked off the field in Paris.

And now the Heineken Cup, that other great political oval ball of our age, is upon us. If some influential figures at Wasps, the reigning champions, have been falling out over recent events in France – Lawrence Dallaglio thinks the England coach, Brian Ashton, rose without trace, Phil Vickery begs to differ – the club's revered and respected back-room brigade have been tearing into the structure of the club game's blue riband competition.

Ian McGeechan, the holders' director of rugby, has been particularly brutal in his criticism of a seeding system that has lumbered his side with the pool-stage opponents from hell: Munster, the 2006 winners and European campaigners supreme; Llanelli Scarlets, the one Welsh side who truly understand the unique dynamic of the tournament; and Clermont Auvergne, the new powerhouse on the far side of the Channel.

"I'm still trying to get my head around it," McGeechan complained as he weighed his team's chances of a third victory in five campaigns. "We are supposed to be the No 1 seeds, so how do we get a draw like this? You have to ask questions about the way the seedings are arranged."

And while he was asking them, he found a kindred spirit in Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of Leicester. "You don't want a situation where two potential winners go out at the pool stage because you have three potential winners in one group and none in another," said the former England hooker. By "you", he meant "we".

This is one of two hardy annuals in the garden of Heineken Cup disputes, the other being the collective moan from the English about having to qualify for the tournament via the season-long slog of the Premiership when teams from the three Celtic nations barely shed a bead of sweat in ambling into the draw. While there is not much anyone can do about the latter problem – and problem it is – without doing away with the notion of guaranteed national representation and simply handing out invitations to the top two-thirds of the Magners League, irrespective of their country of origin, the seeding mechanism can certainly be adjusted. And may be, very soon.

Only this week, fresh ideas were being put forward at a meeting attended by various interested parties, and the subject will be formally debated by the board members of European Rugby Cup Ltd at the end of the month. "There is the perception that there are some hard pools and some that are a lot easier," said Derek McGrath, the chief executive of ERC. "The Magners League idea is one way of thinking, but you have to decide on your objective in terms of improvement. The challenge we have across Europe – that is to say, the well-known issues in Scotland and Italy and how their teams benchmark against other countries – is something we have to balance. Do we take a meritocratic view or the long-term view? So far we have taken the view that we have to be inclusive."

Can McGrath hold the current line, as he and those like-minded folk who cherish the idea of pushing back boundaries rather than pulling them in would prefer to do, or will the heavy hitters get their way? Those who fear the domestic games in Scotland and Italy are already slipping into Norwegian Blue territory, to use the Monty Python parrot analogy, will be alarmed at the prospect of the Glasgows and Trevisos of this world having the last vestiges of competitive life trampled out of them by those with the biggest boots. Such teams are not seeded because they are potential winners, but because as professional rugby nations the Scots and Italians are equal partners – or equal-ish – in a tournament that has always prided itself on its idealism.

Anyway, the likes of Wasps and Leicester should be careful what they wish for. The Midlanders know what it is to lose a Heineken Cup pool game in Glasgow and it is not so very long ago that the Londoners found themselves on the wrong end of a 32-17 beating in Treviso. At the same time, both have emerged from hard pools to win the title. Shaun Edwards, the Wasps defence coach, made the point this week that teams win trophies because of high-intensity games, not despite them. The champions will not have much trouble finding intensity in this season's competition.

The fact that only two – three at a push – of Wasps, Leicester, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, Munster and Leinster will make the last eight is the stuff of strength, not weakness, and it is simply not the case that seriously inferior teams will inevitably make the knockout stage ahead of them. Who can say that the ever-ambitious Catalans of Perpignan are short of class, or that if both Gloucester and Ospreys emerge from their pool it will undermine the integrity of the proceedings? Sure, Biarritz and Saracens are virtually certain to qualify from the easiest of the groups, but Biarritz would have been potential finalists whatever the vagaries of the draw and if the excellent Alan Gaffney heats his Watford-based side to the optimum temperature, it is not inconceivable that they could play their way to a semi-final.

Saracens now have Chris Jack, the fine New Zealand lock, and Brent Russell, the scampering South African back blessed with Habana-like speed, on their books – not so much straightforward southern hemisphere signings as statements of intent. With several other English contenders equally well equipped, there is no reason why the lavishly financed French contingent should not be seen off once more, if not quite to the extent of last season, when no side from Le Championnat made it to the last four. Four years ago, it looked for all the world as though the Premiership would struggle to emulate the achievements of Bath, Northampton and Leicester between 1998 and 2002. Now, the English are the most feared teams of all.

Entire legions of recent World Cup participants from the southern hemisphere have opted to remain on this side of the Equator, lured partly by the value of the pound and the euro but mostly by the chance to test themselves in a relentlessly competitive environment, crowned by its European dimension. Butch James, the Webb Ellis Cup-winning Springbok outside-half is now in England while three more front-line All Blacks – the prop Carl Hayman, the centre Luke McAlister and the wing Rico Gear – are either here or on their way. And what do this quartet have in common? They will not be appearing in the Heineken Cup, because Bath, Newcastle, Sale and Worcester failed to qualify.

No doubt some "forward thinkers" believe this to be commercial madness, in precisely the same way as they hold up this season's Pool Five as an example of the ridiculously counter-productive. Others rather like the idea of making the very biggest names sing for their supper. If truth be told, the players themselves like it. If they didn't, they would have stayed at home and played Super 14, where they are spoon-fed their competitive privileges. The Heineken Cup may have its peculiarities, but it works brilliantly. And if if works, why try to fix it?

World Cup wonders prepare to stamp their authority on Europe's premier club competition

Juan Martin Hernandez (Stade Français)

Agustin Pichot has moved on to Racing Metro but his Argentina half-back partner is still with Stade and is in the same pool as Harlequins, Bristol and the Cardiff Blues.

Byron Kelleher (Toulouse)

Having inspired Toulouse to victory against Stade Français last weekend, the All Black scrum-half faces Andy Robinson's Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Saturday.

Chris Jack (Saracens)

Dropped to the bench for the fateful World Cup quarter-final against France, the All Black lock joins Sarries next month with something of a point to prove.

John Smit (Clermont Auvergne)

The man who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup gets to grips with the Heineken Cup on Sunday, against Llanelli Scarlets.

Percy Montgomery (Perpignan)

The man who kicked the Springboks to World Cup victory kicks off his new career in Catalonia tomorrow night against one of his old clubs, the Newport-Gwent Dragons.

Heineken Cup: Pool-by-Pool Guide

Pool 1

London Irish, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Perpignan, Treviso

A softish group, but hardly a predictable one. Not so long ago Perpignan would have been molten-hot favourites with Treviso stone-cold certain to win one of their home games. Times have changed. The Frenchmen are in the midst of one of their self-destructive phases and the Italians have lost the best of their players to the Azzurri diaspora. If London Irish find their most penetrating form, they have it in them to make the knockout stage but, there again, the Dragons are capable of beating them in wet and windy Newport. Confusing.

And the winners are... Er, um.

Pool 2

Bourgoin, Gloucester, Ospreys, Ulster

There are two pools of death this year but despite the presence of two heavyweights in Gloucester and the Ospreys – not to mention the Ravenhill ruffians of Ulster – this is not one of them. Call it the "pool of not feeling terribly well" instead. The West Countrymen have the most formidable squad in the English game; the West Walians have star quality in most areas – Hook, Henson and Holah are all match-winners, and that's just the Hs. Assuming Bourgoin are their usual quarter-interested selves, this will probably come down to who does best in Belfast. And Gloucester go there tomorrow night.

And the winners are... Um, er.

Pool 3

Bristol, Cardiff Blues, Harlequins, Stade Français

Fabien Galthié was in line to replace Bernard Laporte as France coach, but Marc Lièvremont and Emile Ntamack stole his thunder. Will the former scrum-half and national captain stick it to the Fédération Française de Rugby by guiding the Parisians to the object of their greatest desire? The Argentines – Corleto, Borges, Roncero and Hernandez – are plenty good enough and if elderly Tricolores like Christophe Dominici and Pieter de Villiers stay in one piece they should win the group with something to spare. The rest are likely to beat each other.

And the winners are... Stade Français

Pool 4

Biarritz, Glasgow, Saracens, Viadana

It is written in stone: Biarritz and Saracens will emerge honours even from their games against each other and smithereen the two makeweights, thereby guaranteeing themselves a presence come quarter-final time. Can they be stopped? Not by the hopelessly overmatched Viadana, for sure, but Glasgow might just throw a spanner in the works by producing a grandstand effort at Firhill, where they are unbeaten in the Magners League. The Basques have a high-calibre squad but their notoriously wide conservative streak means Saracens may outdo them on the try count and top the table.

And the winners are... Saracens

Pool 5

Clermont Auvergne, Llanelli Scarlets, Munster, Wasps

Strewth. It comes to something when the Scarlets, by some distance the most reliable of the Welsh sides at this exalted level, are the outsiders in a pool of four. After all, they were semi-finalists as recently as last April. Phil Davies' side have been stringing together some decent results just recently, so none of their rivals will be eager to visit Stradey Park, but it is hard to see the Welshmen winning away from home. A single victory on the road will be enough to pinch top spot and, for all Wasps' resourcefulness, Clermont may be the ones.

And the winners are... Clermont Auvergne

Pool 6

Edinburgh, Leicester, Leinster, Toulouse

Forget the players for a moment and think of the coaches. Marcelo Loffreda, who played a hero's hand with the Pumas at the World Cup, has arrived at Leicester and Andy Robinson, who knows how to put a pack together, has surfaced at Edinburgh. Leinster still have the super-smart Australian Michael Cheika at the helm while Guy Noves, one of the great touchline ranters, remains in situ at Toulouse. What plotting there must be. The Scots are the unconsidered ones, but Robinson says he will turn over at least one of the big three. Whoever wins in Dublin will get through.

And the winners are... Leicester

Chris Hewett

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