6 players ready to set the Heineken Cup on fire

Europe's elite go into battle this weekend so Chris Hewett picks out the players to look out for in the coming campaign
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The Independent Online

Pool 1: Shane Geraghty, Northampton

It is more than a year and a half since Brian Ashton gave the button-bright Geraghty a first cap off the bench against France at Twickenham and if truth be told, the goal-kicking midfielder has not pressed himself on the consciousness in the way his eye-catching performance that day suggested he might. Injuries have restricted him, as has the increased attention paid by opposition coaches planning their defensive strategies. But he is a natural game-shaper and his moment must be drawing near.

England are struggling horribly in the inside-centre position, and while Geraghty has spent most of this term playing outside-half for Northampton, sound contributions over the next few days against two of the favourites for the Heineken Cup title, Munster and Perpignan, will push him very close to the front of the queue ahead of the Test against the Wallabies on 7 November.

Pool 2: Dimitri Yachvili, Biarritz

England are feeling rather smug about their lavish resources at scrum-half, where Harry Ellis and Danny Care face meaningful challenges from the Paul Hodgsons and Joe Simpsons of this world. France are in even better shape. Morgan Parra is a diamond, Sebastien Tillous-Borde can play a bit and Julien Dupuy is a pure match-winner, as he repeatedly demonstrated during his spell with Leicester. And then there is Yachvili, the man with the pipecleaner legs who hoofs the ball a mile and is blessed with enough low cunning to have played a starring role in The Sting.

Good judges across the water say Yachvili is now playing beautifully after a miserable spell and it is no surprise that his club's striking performances of late have coincided with his return to form. He very nearly pulled the 2006 final out of the fire single-handedly, and if the Basques go one better this time, he will be at the heart of it.

Pool 3: Alun-Wyn Jones, Ospreys

As always on a Lions tour, there were a number of profoundly unlucky players among those who travelled to South Africa in the summer. What did Stephen Ferris do to deserve such misfortune on the injury front? How come things backfired so badly for Lee Byrne? As for Jones, the form lock in the party during the first half of the trip... well, he was dealt the worst hand of all. Why? Because he played brilliantly in the captain's position, the very definition of frustration.

Would a Test combination of Simon Shaw and the Swansea University medical student have been more potent than the one between Shaw and Paul O'Connell? It is arguable, and Jones will spend the next few months making the argument for all he is worth. If Ospreys are to get a proper handle on this tournament, they must get themselves sorted up front. Jones will be central to that operation.

Pool 4: Sergio Parisse, Stade Français

It is no easy matter to work your way onto a five-man shortlist for the International Rugby Board's player of the year gong. It is infinitely harder to do it when your Test team never wins. Parisse, by common consent the world's outstanding No 8, may or may not land the top award over the next few seasons – even an individual as gifted as the Italy captain will descend into the general morass if a side is bad enough for long enough – but in the club environment, the potential for glittering prizes is rich indeed.

Parisse can do it all, in his sleep. First capped as an 18-year-old against the All Blacks, his work in the French capital since arriving from Treviso has been nothing short of remarkable. If he inspires Stade Français to a first European title, he will be able to name his own price when contract renewal time arrives.

Pool 5: Maxime Médard, Toulouse

The mutton-chops may not be terribly trendy, but no player in Europe is more at rugby's cutting edge than the mesmerising Tricolore full-back. Like the great Serge Blanco before him, Médard can conjure a try from thin air. He runs angles that might have bemused Euclid himself, he gives every pass its right weight and def-ends with a passion. Were he English, he would have left Danny Cipriani for dead in the race for the headlines.

Médard comes from a Junior World Cup-winning generation: his colleagues in that triumphant team of 2006 included the brilliant Perpignan centre Maxime Mermoz, the Stade Français outside-half Lionel Beauxis and the Montpellier flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo, all of whom have joined him in the grown-up Test side. He is also a product of the Toulouse back-line system. Enough said.

Pool 6: Jamie Heaslip, Leinster

Did Mervyn Davies – Merv the Swerve of blessed memory – ever play better for the Lions than Heaslip in Johannesburg last July, when the tourists smeared South Africa and their silly little protest armbands all over Ellis Park? Difficult to say at this distance, but there was no arguing with the Irishman's performance at that forbidding Springbok stronghold.

Heaslip just happened to score Leinster's try in the Heineken Cup final victory over Leicester shortly before boarding the plane south, so it might be suggested that the early summer months belonged as much to him as to anyone. Powerful on the drive and nobody's fool when it comes to slipping the odd pass right or left, the man born in the Israeli city of Tiberias is in his pomp. As Leinster are in a similarly enviable position, it could be another very good season.

Tomorrow: Read Chris Hewett's full club-by-club guide to the Heineken Cup

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