Heineken Cup preview: New seedings level the playing field for usual suspects

When push comes to shove the underdogs will have their work cut out to reach the Cardiff final, and holders face tough test too
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The Independent Online

The Heineken Cup final seems drawn compulsively to Cardiff, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the identity of the teams most likely to get there appears ever more predictable, which just might be. Wales' convivial capital is to stage the blue riband event of European club rugby for the fifth time on the penultimate weekend in May, and it would be a welcome surprise if someone beyond the usual suspects grabbed hold of it.

This is not to suggest any untoward bias against the good folk of Stade Français and Toulouse, Leicester and Wasps, Munster and Llanelli Scarlets: the perennial contenders. But it would refresh more parts than even the sponsor's product can reach if, say, Gloucester's young bucks or Ospreys' swaggering Welshmen could stick around until push comes to shove at the Millennium Stadium. These pretenders to the crown won by Wasps against Leicester at Twickenham last spring must handle a marathon of six pool matches and three knockout bouts over more than six months; it takes a combination of talent, luck and timing over the long haul.

First up is the round-robin pool stage, dominated by a method of seeding aimed at levelling the playing field which was as clear as mud to the champions' director of rugby, Ian McGeechan. "We're supposed to be the No 1 seeds, so how can we get a draw like this?" McGeechan asked. The answer is that the only nod to meritocracy was the allocation of one group each to the top representative from each of the six competing countries. Thus Glasgow were first into PoolFour and Treviso of Italy werepre-eminent in Pool One.

So while London Irish slithered into a pool composed entirely of a shallow end, Wasps must harpoon piranhas in Munster, Llanelli Scarlets and Clermont Auvergne. For next Saturday's opener, Munster and their red army of fans have been sent to Coventry City's 32,000-capacity Ricoh Arena.

"Munster throw all their ammunition at every game so they will want to come and win," said Paul Sackey, Wasps' England wing. "Both teams feel they are the best in Europe for the last five years and there's going to be fireworks. We don't mind that, we like a bit of hostility.

"We always make it hard for ourselves because we always lose one home game and then have to win away. But that is why we are such a good team: we like to soak up a bit of pressure."

McGeechan's tiros Tom Rees, James Haskell, Danny Cipriani and Dom Waldouck gained priceless experience last season. In a further twist, Wasps' old fly-half Alex King is now with Clermont.

There will be many pundits who say Toulouse are on the wane. Oh really? They still have Tonga's master-blaster of a back- rower, Finau Maka, to go with Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Vincent Clerc and the newly arrived All Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher. The Pool Six tussles between Toulouse, Leicester – under new head honcho Marcelo Loffreda – and Leinster should be epic.

Saracens make their return to the competition and are due some luck after no reward in the past from a respectable 11 wins in 18 Heineken matches. Harlequins and Bristol – in together as a result of England having seven qualifiers – will do well to get anything out of Stade Français and their rugby galacticos: Juan Martin Hernandez, Ignacio Corleto, Simon Taylor, Lionel Beauxis and Mirco and Mauro Bergamasco, to name but several.

As to matters financial, the English clubs' recent deal with the Rugby Football Union has given a freer hand to Premier Rugby, who keep 25 per cent of distributable revenue. Jon Varney, Premier Rugby's commercial director, acknowledges that although the "big clubs" bring in the cash, the Heineken Cup would be better for being more unpredictable. "We've got to help Italy get stronger," said Varney. "That will open another market for us all."

The Premiership clubs are agitating almost to double their salary cap, to £4 million. They want to account openly for new Heineken Cup draw cards such as Chris Jack at Saracens and Gloucester's Lesley Vainikolo, while narrowing a perceived spending gap with the leading French sides. The English are also engaged in a six-month review of the two European competitions; one idea under consideration is a 40-team Heineken Cup. "Ireland, Scotland and Wales have the same teams every year," Varney said, "whereas we have to say to five or six of our clubs that they're not in it."

That is for the future. For now the rugby widows (and widowers) will gasp at lunchtime-to-nightcap TV coverage across the weekend, with the second-tier European Challenge Cup even creeping into Thursday evenings. The rest of us cannot wait.

This week's big games

FRIDAY: ULSTER v GLOUCESTER (POOL TWO) Gloucester's bright young things were found wanting away to Leinster last season. A Friday night frightener at Ravenhill is the perfect test of the Premiership's pacesetters.

SATURDAY: London Irish v Treviso (Pool ONE) Mike Catt's chance to show he can play as well as write a good game. Irish will never have a better path to the last eight.

Ospreys v Bourgoin (Pool tWO) Wales' best hopes for the title need to lay down a marker against the traditionally feckless Bergusiens.

Stade Français v Harlequins (Pool Three) Quins often make life tough for the fancied teams but Stade are many people's favourites to win the whole shooting match.

Wasps v Munster (Pool five)

Wasps tend to improve after the new year, so Paul O'Connell's side will seek of an upset.

Edinburgh v Toulouse (Pool six) The three-times champions Toulouse lost their opener in Edinburgh on the way to the 2004 final. The Scots' new coach, Andy Robinson, would love a repeat.

Saturday: Leinster v Leicester (Pool six) Tigers canter on to the Royal Dublin Showground to face Brian O'Driscoll and a Leinster pack on the rise.