At the launch of the Heineken Cup at Twickenham - the final is held there on a Sunday in May - it was deemed a good idea to have Bruce Reihana attend in his capacity as captain of Northampton. There was only one slight problem. The New Zealander, one of the strongest runners in the Premiership, was on crutches, a leg in bandages, knee ligaments torn to breaking point. All told, not a great advert for the game.
In fact Northampton, who are in Pool Six, which is by no means the most daunting, look in need of a faith healer or somebody selling a snake potion which has magical properties. They have not been much of a threat in the Guinness Premiership, and it is not only Reihana they are missing. With strange timing, Budge Pountney, Saints' director of rugby, announced he was retiring to Hampshire at the end of the season, and there was the trauma of the alleged Mark Robinson racist tirade in their recent match against Bath. No case to answer, but no halo either.
Now Robinson's Kiwi partner Carlos Spencer has been cited for a dangerous tackle on Gareth Cooper, the Newport-Gwent Dragons scrum-half, during the Saints' defeat last weekend. King Carlos appears at an RFU disciplinary hearing tomorrow, and if he is found guilty he could be out for up to a month. Northampton are standing by Spencer and keeping their fingers crossed.
In the Heineken Cup, when Saints were drawn against Biarritz, Borders and Parma they might have thought they had drawn the long straw. But given their current standing it does not look half as good, and next Sunday they travel to Biarritz, easily the most attractive venue in the competition but also one of the hardest to win at.
The French club, chic and moneyed up to a degree that they could afford to chase Brian O'Driscoll, got to the final against Munster at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff last May and lost 23-19. Yes, Peter Stringer, the Ireland scrum-half, broke their hearts and their defence with a blindside try from a scrum, but there was another factor that did for Biarritz: out of a crowd of 75,000, at least 70,000 were from Ireland. No other club in Europe, not even Leicester, can summon such support, and it is inspiring and tangible.
At home, Biarritz put on the Ritz. Sale and Bath were beaten by them last season, albeit in San Sebastian. For the final? The Basques were drowned out. "It's hard to say what Munster's secret is," said Stringer. "Something comes from where we live. It's a special place to be. You meet your friends in the street and you see how much the success of the team means to them."
Finishing top in Europe had been Munster's holy grail, and they captured it after seven years of almost fanatical endeavour. The question is: are they ravenous enough to do it again? We will get a taste next Sunday when they tackle Leicester at Welford Road in Pool Four. As big as this challenge is, defeat for Munster would not necessarily mean the end of the crusade. Last season they opened at Sale and lost, but qualified for the knockout stage by beating Sale at their fortress in Limerick, Thomond Park. No team but Munster have ever won in Europe at Thomond Park where, you would almost swear, water is turned into stout.
Annually, there has to be a "group of death", and Pool Four is the one nominated for Russian roulette. Cardiff and Bourgoin complete the group, and for the first time since the diluted final 10 years ago, the Principality is breathing like a dragon on heat.
"We're miles in front of where we were last season," said Dai Young, the coach of Cardiff. "Usually at this time of the year people want to sack the coaching staff and get rid of half the players." He says the scenario is different this season because the Blues made an impact in the Anglo-Welsh EDF Energy Cup, beating Wasps and Saracens.
"We've learned a few lessons," said Young. "We've got a much better all-round squad and we're going out believing we can win, not just hoping for it. This is a massive challenge, and there won't be a lot of money wagered on us to succeed. A home win is a must, and if you can win on the road it's a great bonus. I've had a good look at Bourgoin, and if Munster and Leicester think that this is where they're going to pick up easy points, they're in for a shock."
And a border crossing into a new landmark. Bourgoin are thinking of playing Munster at a 25,000-seat stadium in Geneva, and they are not the only club or region looking further afield to satisfy supply and demand. Cardiff are moving their home tie with Leicester from the Arms Park to the Millennium Stadium, where they are expecting a minimum crowd of 30,000; Stade Français will play Sale at Parc des Princes rather than in their adjacent home ground, and Munster and Leinster, should they reach the quarter-finals with "home" draws, are looking at grounds in London, Reading or Cardiff, since Lansdowne Road in Dublin is being redeveloped.
There is, though, a massive danger in forsaking home comforts for the democracy of a bigger stadium. Leicester discovered this last season, when they could have played a quarter-final against Bath at Welford Road but moved it to the Walkers Stadium, the home of Leicester City FC. There was about twice the crowd but half the atmosphere and the Tigers, who are Heineken Cup veterans, did not perform. They went out to a stunning silence.
Munster, at least in the pool matches, will never desert Thom-ond, and the same goes for Ulster, who have their own stronghold, Ravenhill in Belfast. Toulouse, three times Heineken Cup champions, will have to be on top of their game when they visit Ulster, who are doing rather well in the Magners League. Munster are not, having rested most of their Test players, but this is a lot stronger than the cider fields. When Munster play Leicester it will be their 77th Heineken Cup game. They like the taste of it.
Replay 1995-96: Toulouse kick off the long trek
In January 1996, Toulouse defeated Cardiff in the heart of the Welsh capital, writing a historical footnote as the first winners of the Heineken Cup. The game had just become a professional sport, so it was big beer but not quite the full pint.
The sponsors and ITV, who were the first broadcasters, described the European showpiece as a £20m event but there were quite large elements missing - namely the English and the Scots, who initially boycotted the tournament.
A crowd of 22,000 attended the final at the old national stadium, Toulouse winning 21-18 after extra time, one of their two tries coming from Thomas Castaignède, who later, of course, crossed the Channel and became a Saracen.
Two of the driving forces behind the birth of the competition were Vernon Pugh in Cardiff and Tom Kiernan in Dublin, but the lack of interest from the outfits in England and Scotland meant that only 12 teams took part in the inaugural competition. Now the event has grown and grown, and there are 24 clubs and regions playing six pools of four, the six pool winners qualifying for the knockout stages, alongside the two best runners-up.
Since the early tentative launch the Heineken Cup has become a major player in European rugby, providing a much-needed diversion from the domestic competitions in what is seen by the players as a standard just below international level. It has developed into a true blue-riband event, for both players and spectators, and most squads target it. If you can qualify for the Heineken you have passed a threshold. The cup takes some winning.
Tim GloverReuse content