Heineken Cup provides perfect stage for heroes of World Cup

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The Independent Online

While some casual rugby fans may have had their fill of the sport following a tumultuous World Cup in New Zealand, more committed followers of the XV-a-side code are preparing themselves for the jewel in the crown of European club rugby next weekend.

Since its inception for the 1995-96 season the Heineken Cup has gone from strength to strength and deserves its position as arguably the best club or provincial competition in the world.

While the tournament will also sadly be associated with the "Bloodgate" scandal which enveloped Harlequins following their quarter-final defeat against Leinster two years ago, the Heineken Cup remains the clearest representation of the positive aspects of the European game.

There will be those who prefer the fast and free game on offer in the Super 15 – while that tournament may be aesthetically pleasing, it lacks the tribal rivalries of its Northern Hemisphere counterpart.

And the 2011-12 edition promises to be another classic with so many of the players on show having recently excelled in New Zealand.

The likes of Thierry Dusautoir, Sean O'Brien, Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts, Stephen Ferris, Vincent Clerc and Mike Phillips will all be on show with an eventual winner seemingly tougher to pick than ever as the draw throws up a number of intriguing contests.

Leinster are again among the favourites but are handed another testing pool assignment as they are joined by Bath, Glasgow and Top 14 runners-up Montpellier in Pool Three.

Likewise their Irish rivals Munster also face a battle just to reach the knock-out stages with Northampton, a Scarlets side that includes the majority of the Wales backline, and Castres keeping them company in Pool One.

Leicester will meet perennial underachievers Clermont Auvergne and ever-improving Ulster in Pool Four, while Premiership champions Saracens are drawn with Ospreys – now without James Hook, Mike Phillips and Lee Byrne – and Biarritz in another mouthwatering group.

Four-time winners Toulouse have been handed the most favourable draw of the big guns as they line up with Harlequins, Gloucester and Connacht in Pool Six.