I expect these next two weeks to be a difficult time of the season at Saracens, because the Heineken Cup will be going on without us. We're bitterly disappointed not to be involved, especially after reaching the semi-finals last time out, and although we face examinations of a different kind in our European Challenge Cup pool, we'll miss the added intensity of the elite competition, where the contests are likely to be just a little tougher, and very definitely more serious, than the much talked-about one between Danny Cipriani and Josh Lewsey at Wasps.
Not that we won't be taking the European Challenge Cup very seriously. Qualification for Europe is based on last season's results rather than current form and, consequently, the strongest teams are not always in the main competition. We have two French clubs in our pool, including Bayonne, who have a good deal of money behind them and are riding high domestically. The standard in the Challenge Cup improves year on year, so if we want to win the thing – and we do – we'll have to throw ourselves into it.
People say the tournament lives in the shadow of the Heineken Cup, but then, so do most competitions. Speaking as an Australian who knows a bit about Super 14 rugby in the southern hemisphere, I believe even this is being dwarfed by the Heineken giant. There is nothing quite like it in the world game – certainly not in terms of the partisan atmosphere generated by the rival supporters.
But no tournament, no matter how well supported, can continue to thrive without quality at its core. The Heineken Cup has the necessary quality, plus a bit to spare. When you look at Munster and Leinster, you might as well be looking at Ireland A and Ireland B. It's the same story with the Scottish and Welsh sides. When you consider the French contingent, you're talking about world-class clubs armed with the biggest budgets in the sport. When you look at the English contenders, you're seeing the fruits of the Guinness Premiership, which is more competitive by the year.
At the top European level, which I consider to be very close to Test rugby, the title contenders often have much in common with their national teams. The most successful English clubs are Leicester, with their forward power, and Wasps, with their punishingly physical defence. Put those two things together and you have England. I see a lot of similarities between the Munster-Leinster axis and Ireland, between the Ospreys and Wales. And, of course, the two faces of the French game are reflected by Toulouse's freestyle, off-loading rugby, and Stade Français' more structured, kick-dominated approach.
So who do I fancy to win it? Right now, I'm not looking too much further than Stade Français, now coached by my fellow countryman, the World Cup-winning Wallaby prop Ewen McKenzie. I think they'll be desperately hard to beat. They have a strong forward pack, headed up by Sergio Parisse of Italy, one of the very best No 8s in the sport. They also have Juan Martin Hernandez of Argentina at their disposal. He's one hell of a player, and when he learns to play outside-half like an outside-half, rather than play it like a full-back as he does at the moment, he'll be something else.
I'm also excited by the arrival in Paris of Mark Gasnier, the Australian rugby league international. Stade have been playing him on the wing, and his electric footwork has already had people talking over there. Gasnier is a major capture for a club who needed to replace the exceptional Christophe Dominici and shifted heaven and earth to find one. If both he and Hernandez click, this could easily be Stade's year.
Eddie Jones is the director of rugby at Saracens and you can see them in action at Vicarage Road tomorrow when they face Mont-de-Marsan in the European Challenge Cup, kick off 3pm.What's Caught My Eye Our kids are alright
*Last weekend's Premiership break provided a perfect showcase for the young, English-qualified personnel ready to take the next step on the professional ladder. A good number of them are here at Saracens, and by the end of our EDF Energy Cup match with Llanelli Scarlets, we had seven players under 20 on the field, learning the ropes against the likes of Stephen Jones and Kees Meuws, who know a thing or two about the game. It's not always possible to fast-track people in England as we do in Australia, but I wouldn't bet against one or two of our teenagers getting in the first team on form by the end of the season.