Lawrence Dallaglio: Cardiff can end Welsh jinx and Racing are certainty to shine
The former England captain's pool-by-pool guide to the Heineken Cup
Sunday 03 October 2010
Northampton have started like a train and will be favourites in this pool. But I think Cardiff Blues will have momentum from winning the Amlin Challenge Cup. To do it, they won on the road against Newcastle, Wasps and Toulon, and their players are experienced in European rugby now. Their squad is much the same, though they let Andy Powell go, and what a sad story that was. He did bloody well for Cardiff and there didn't need to be such a cloud over him leaving. But Cardiff carry Wales's best hopes of breaking the English, French and Irish domination and I tip them to go through as one of the two best runners-up.
Prediction Northampton to win, Cardiff Blues to go through as runners-up.
Racing have moved up a level and the tournament could do with a newcomer upsetting the old order. Racing have bought a team and, though that doesn't give you sustained success, it can get you one year's worth. Clermont have yet to hit their stride this season but having got a monkey off their back by winning the French championship, they'll want to do something in Europe. A slightly ageing squad but they will be dangerous. Leinster, with Brian O'Driscoll, still have strong prospects. And Saracens are interesting. Are they going to be serious challengers in Europe or do they want to win the Premiership? To do both will be a really tall order for any team. Their opening games away to Clermont and home to Leinster will dictate their progress.
Prediction: Racing to win.
This is fascinating. Ospreys had their golden opportunity last year in the quarter-final against Biarritz, when the winners knew they had a home semi-final – and they blew it. London Irish are starting to produce consistency in England but to win this group they'll have to produce their A-game every time they play. Toulon, on paper, are the galacticos of rugby. With Jonny Wilkinson in the ranks, they've got a chance. But they are very beatable, home and away. To me, they're still adjusting psychologically to losing a French semi-final and a European final last year. Munster are not the side they were, but they have a history of finding their way through and – surprise, surprise – they have got a home game to finish the pool, yet again.
Prediction Munster to win.
Biarritz reached last year's final and made it closer than I thought it would be by forcing Toulouse to be conservative in their approach. Biarritz have a good set-piece, a good kicking game and they tackle their hearts out. But if I was at Bath I'd be quite encouraged by this group. I think they will beat all their opponents at The Rec and if they can pick up two wins away, the last trip to Biarritz in January may not matter. I'd like to see Bath do well and if they don't qualify they will only have themselves to blame. That should leave Biarritz vying with the likes of Toulouse, Wasps and Cardiff Blues for the available runners-up spots.
Prediction: Bath to win
Leicester have one stand-out game which is the trip to Perpignan. It will be tough but they can handle it, and I think the Tigers will go about their work quietly. They need to avoid a repeat of last year, when they let slip a lead against Ospreys and it cost them. If Leicester are not sloppy they should come out of this group quite comfortably. Once it gets to the latter stages it's about the draw. If they secure a home quarter-final at Welford Road and a home semi-final, they'll be in business. I'm not worried about England's prospects. Other teams last year happened to be better placed in their evolution but our pedigree with four former winners taking part is good.
Prediction Leicester to win.
It would be disrespectful not to look at last season's standout teams, and the champions are Toulouse, who are synonymous with the competition, the Milan or Real Madrid of the Heineken Cup. They're a force on their own patch but their record outside Toulouse is not spectacular. Wasps' record against them in England is very good. I immediately think of the 2004 final at Twickenham but also a 77-17 win at Loftus Road a few years back. The biggest danger is Wasps and Toulouse concentrate on each other and forget the others. If you're careless against the Dragons or Glasgow, you will get beaten. My heart says Wasps can top the group, but the head knows Toulouse will qualify.
Prediction Toulouse to win, Wasps through as runners-up.
Lawrence Dallaglio, Amlin rugby ambassador, won the Heineken Cup twice and Amlin Challenge Cup once as a player with Wasps. Interview by Hugh Godwin
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