French plan smash and grab raid for crown jewels of Europe

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The Independent Online

There are people who have money, and there are people who have something better. Those most closely associated with the Heineken Cup, which begins this evening with a humdinger of a match between the swankiest team in Wales and the strongest team in England, can be found in the second category. The most captivating annual tournament in world rugby does not generate nearly enough income, which is why some of the major participants are forever threatening to stage a boardroom coup, but with the single exception of the boycott season in 1998-99 - the result of a political crisis rather than a financial one - the competition continues on its onwards and upwards trajectory.

When it comes to sporting economics, the Heineken Cup is in a strange dark place of its own. The title sponsors do not get so much as a mention in one of the tournament's strongholds because of the French ban on alcohol advertising, while secondary investors are wary of committing substantial sums because the British television rights were flogged off to satellite broadcasters who deliver audiences in the thousands rather than the millions. The English and Welsh teams would earn more from winning the EDF Energy Cup - little more than a second-team competition in its pool stage - than for proving themselves the leading side in Europe. No, really. You couldn't make it up.

And yet. There is something in the DNA of the thing that protects it from the worst of the decisions taken on its behalf. Twickenham, the venue for the 2007 final next May, has already shifted around 20,000 tickets, almost a quarter of its capacity, without a ball being kicked or a sly punch being thrown, and there is every prospect of big-time rugby travelling to non-rugby cities - Barcelona, Geneva - as clubs seek out stadia large enough to house the multitudes. To all intents and purposes, the Heineken Cup is now too big for its own infrastructure.

Fortunately, the venues for tonight's principal opening fixtures are fit for purpose. London Irish, who yesterday drafted the Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua into their squad as a wild-card player, take on Llanelli Scarlets at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, while Ospreys, otherwise known as the Welsh glitterati, meet the English champions Sale at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea, where most of the 20,000 seats are expected to be filled. No one predicted growth on this scale when the tournament took its first tentative steps in 1995-96, watched by less than 100,000 spectators. Last season the total was 4,000 short of a million.

It is no great surprise that Andy Robinson, the England coach, will watch this weekend's opening round before finalising his 30-man squad for the autumn internationals, due to be announced next Wednesday. As Ian McGeechan, the director of rugby at Wasps, explains: "This is the tournament that shows you the players capable of thinking under pressure and adapting to the unexpected. We're in with two French teams and an Italian side this time, so there is no familiarity on which we can fall back. We need to play with our brains - and that, of course, is precisely what international rugby demands of you."

Had Toulouse, the only three-time winners of the competition, engaged their little grey cells during last season's wonderful quarter-final with Leinster, they would probably have gone on to deny Munster the title they had craved with increasing desperation since Mick Galwey and company first got to grips with European rugby in the 1999-2000 campaign. But the Frenchmen considered it beneath them to tighten up their game in the face of the Irish province's long-range assaults and played ball instead.

They will not make the same mistake this time, for they measure themselves by their performance at this level - an approach that has rubbed off on the other serious Tricolore powers, from Stade Français in the north to Biarritz and Perpignan in the south. These teams will certainly punch their weight, and punch it earlier than usual. Notorious slow starters in run-of-the-mill seasons, they are better equipped to hit the ground sprinting this time because the World Cup-driven compression of their domestic fixture list means they have already played 11 matches. As the Irish provinces are undercooked and the only English clubs equipped to win the tournament, Sale and Wasps, are only just finding their rhythm, the French should be fast out of the blocks. Especially Stade Francais and Biarritz, two Heineken runners-up with an eye on the jackpot.

A French victory, then? Probably, unless Lawrence Dallaglio and his supremely conditioned Wasps team sneak it on their wits as they did in 2004. The Tricolores have it in them to win the World Cup as well, which would make 2007 very hard to bear.

The great pretenders: Three clubs with grand designs on a first European triumph

SALE

The Premiership champions are determined to establish themselves alongside Leicester and Wasps as the strongest English clubs of the professional era. A European title would do the trick.

Biarritz

Runners-up last time out, the men from Serge Blanco country have prioritised this tournament almost to the exclusion of everything else. They are reigning French champions, but want more.

Stade Francais

Long-time European campaigners who should have won the title in 1999, and might easily have won it in both 2001 and 2005. The most impatient of the nearly brigade.

Pools forecast: Chris Hewett separates the high-flyers from the also-rans in this season's tournament

POOL 1: Castres, Perpignan, Treviso, Wasps

Significantly stronger up front now Phil Vickery and Tom Palmer have joined the merry throng, Wasps have every reason to back themselves for a place in the later stages of the tournament. However, their recent away form in Europe is not the best - they have not managed a result since winning at Calvisano two seasons back - and they will probably need at least two victories on the road if they are to beat Perpignan to top spot. Castres, a side with internationals from 10 countries, are capable of anything, but their domestic form is desperate.

POOL 2: Agen, Edinburgh, Gloucester, Leinster

Ouch. There are so many pools of death this year, the tournament resembles a charnel house. Gloucester, currently parading the most exciting back division in the English game, start tomorrow against Leinster, never less than a thrill a minute, armed as they are with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Felipe Contepomi. Any sort of result in Dublin would give the West Countrymen a mighty lift, but the trips to France and Scotland are no less awkward in their different ways. Away wins are likely to be rarer than hen's teeth, so it could come down to bonus points.

POOL 3: Calvisano, Ospreys, Sale, Stade Français

Even more of an ouch, especially if you play for Calvisano. The Italians will be minced every time they set foot outside Stadio Comunale di Monigo. The Ospreys have the boyos back in numbers - Shane Williams, Gavin Henson, Brent Cockbain, the three Joneses in the pack (Duncan, Adam and Ryan) will take a lot of beating in Swansea. Sale are beginning to find their stride, with Charlie Hodgson playing like a dream. And Stade Français? Twenty-three full internationals and a burning desire to nail this European thing once and for all makes them profoundly dangerous.

POOL 4: Bourgoin, Cardiff Blues, Leicester, Munster

Er, um... what do we make of this lot? Munster, the champions, stand or fall by their performances in this competition, as do Leicester. These giants of the European game meet at Welford Road on Sunday, where full metal jackets will be on sale at the turnstiles. Bourgoin, on the other hand, have never made the remotest sense of Heineken Cup rugby, and if the Blues beat them in the Lyonnais tomorrow, they will probably fall away. The Welshmen, more confident now than for many a long season, hold the key to this group.

POOL 5: Llanelli Scarlets, London Irish, Toulouse, Ulster

Yet another highly competitive grouping, largely because Frédéric Michalak and Toulouse will not feel particularly good about any of their away fixtures. Belfast is a hell-hole for visiting teams - Ulster's defeat by Biarritz in last season's pool stages was their first reverse at Ravenhill in 15 outings - while dear old Stradey Park still sends the pulse rate soaring. London Irish have both the talent and the imagination to make a fist of this pool, but they will have to show some form pretty damned quickly to keep themselves in the mix much beyond Christmas.

POOL 6: Biarritz, Northampton, Borders, Overmach Parma

At last! A straightforward pool. Unless something very strange happens, Biarritz will win this pool at a canter and qualify for the quarter-finals as top seeds. On a good day, Northampton might just beat the deeply ambitious Basques at Franklin's Gardens, just as they did in the 2000-01 and 2002-03 campaigns, but good days are in short supply right now. There again, it is a quirk of the tournament's structure that a last-eight place is theirs for the taking as one of the best-placed runners-up. If they fail to do a job on the two makeweights, they should take up darts.

SCHEDULE

1st round of group matches Today-Sunday

2nd round 27-29 Oct

3rd round 8-10 Dec

4th round 15-17 Dec

5th round 12-14 Jan 2007

6th round 19-21 Jan

The six group winners plus the two best runners-up will qualify for the quarter-finals.

Chris Hewett's predicted last eight

Wasps, Gloucester, Stade Français, Munster, Toulouse, Biarritz, Northampton (runners-up), Perpignan (runners-up).

Quarter-finals 30 March-1 April

Semi-finals 20-22 April

Final 20 May (Twickenham)

Hewett's predicted final

Stade Français to beat Wasps

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