First cut will be the deepest

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The Independent Online

This time next weekend, a few of the biggest hopes in the European Cup could already be severely damaged. There's no gentle build-up in this tournament, and one home defeat is likely to be disastrous.

This time next weekend, a few of the biggest hopes in the European Cup could already be severely damaged. There's no gentle build-up in this tournament, and one home defeat is likely to be disastrous.

That's how fiercely competitive it is, and the importance of winning your home games places enormous pressure from the outset. The first of the big names to feel that pressure are Toulouse, Munster and Swansea. If they lose at home on Saturday it will be a shattering blow to their chances - and it could easily happen to one, two or even all three.

Toulouse are at home to Saracens, who will have the considerable advantage of having the former Toulouse star Thomas Castaignÿde in their ranks. I'm not sure of Toul-ouse's present form as their season began later than ours but I am aware Sarries are playing very well and apart from Castaignÿde have been also strengthened by the arrival of Tim Horan and Duncan McRae.

After losing in the semi-finals last season, Toulouse will be out to redeem themselves but they may find that Sarries, who lost narrowly at last season's group stage to the eventual finalists Munster, are no less fired up and considerably wised up, too, by Castaignÿde's intimate knowledge of the French team.

Munster begin their campaign at home to Newport, whose forwards will pose massive problems - Gary Teichmann is playing inspirational stuff at the moment.

Swansea are difficult to beat at St Helens but I have a high regard for Wasps' chances of winning the European Cup this time. They were unlucky to lose to Northampton in the quarter-finals last year and I suspect they will be too strong for the Swans, unless the Welsh side improve.

Not that I've been impressed with the standard of club rugby in England in the early stages of this season. Crowds are down while, in contrast, games in Wales have been more exciting and better attended. But when it comes to cup games the dour, unrelenting approach may get the upper hand.

Of the six groups, I believe that Group Three is the hardest. As well as Toulouse and Saracens, it contains Cardiff and Ulster, the winners in 1999. Cardiff have not being playing brilliantly but they have managed to get out of jail and win every match. Their visit to Ulster will put the Irish under great pressure and I fear that Ulster will find it heavy going against their three rivals.

Group Four is another tough one. Munster and Newport are joined by Bath and Castres and Bath will recall that their chances last season were virtually destroyed when they lost at home to Toulouse on the first day.

Leicester have a slightly easier group with Glasgow, Pontypridd and Pau as their opposition and will be fancied to reach the knockout stages because of their impregnability at home.

The holders, Northampton, may have the easiest group of all with Biarritz, Edinburgh and Leinster. And they have that great advantage of being away on the first day. The BBC are covering their match at Biarritz so it'll be the one I'll be at.

Although it will be far from easy for them, Northampton will at least be relaxed by the knowledge that losing won't be a calamity. At this stage, away defeats are nowhere as devastating as home defeats.

We can be grateful that the bulk of the group matches are taking place over the next month. That allows clubs, players and fans to concentrate on one competition without interruption and lets us get full value of the race to qualify.

Here again, it is vital to win the group as home advantage is proving to be essential in the later rounds. I am delighted that this season the semi-finals are to be played at neutral venues again. This is much fairer. Being unbeatable at home is a tremendous asset but it shouldn't be the deciding factor right up until the final.

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