Peter Bills: Heineken Cup following predictable path

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The Independent Online

There may have been exciting individual matches and for sure there was no lack of courage and commitment.

But with only two rounds played in this season’s Heineken Cup, it is already easy to pick four of the six automatic qualifiers for the quarter finals next April. This is not necessarily a good augury.

Already, Leicester, Toulouse, Biarritz and Munster are taking control of their respective pools. Only Pools 1 and 2 still seem comparatively open, albeit not for Edinburgh in Pool 1 or Saracens in Pool 2, both of whom have lost their opening two fixtures and are in effect already out of the running.

Any one of Northampton, Castres or Cardiff could yet win Pool 1; likewise, one of Leinster, Clermont or possibly Racing Metro could triumph in Pool 2. But in the remaining four pools, decisive strides have already been made by the traditional powerhouse clubs of Europe.

Biarritz, already three points clear in Pool 4, now play the Italian club Aironi twice in December. By the end of the year, they should have 19 points with another home game still left, giving them a clear sight of an automatic place in the last eight. Likewise, Toulouse in Pool 6 and Leicester in Pool 5 both of whom are already dominating their rivals.

Pool 3 may appear tighter, but I find it impossible to believe Munster will not emerge.

Beyond dispute, the two most impressive wins of last weekend were Leicester’s 46-10 romp against the Scarlets and Munster’s 45-18 flogging of Toulon. ‘Asphyxiated’, Toulon coach Philippe Saint-Andre said of his team. Good word that to describe what Munster do to their opponents.

This may be great news for the followers of Leicester, Toulouse, Biarritz and Munster. But it is surely less than ideal for European rugby in a wider sense.

Once again, the strong teams are emerging and the wannabes struggling. We looked and hoped that teams like the Ospreys, Saracens, Cardiff, London Irish and Ulster might step up a notch this season. Hopes had been high that one or two of that group could offer a fresh, serious challenge, but all have lost games they would have hoped to win.

This is disappointing for the whole of European rugby. Saracens and Ulster in particular have recruited heavily from overseas – in Saracens’ case, a positive tsunami of South Africans has swept into the place. Yet two defeats from their first two matches suggests all that money has yet to bear fruit in the premier European club/provincial competition. Watford South Africa hardly yet looks a formidable opponent.

Ulster, too, have caught the South African bug, bringing in Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, BJ Botha, Robbie Diack and Pedrie Wannenburg. Yet the way they collapsed to a 35-15 defeat at Biarritz on Sunday, represented a crushing setback for their hopes in Europe this season.

It may appear ridiculously early in the campaign to be drawing such conclusions. But the crucial factor with the Heineken Cup is that teams must hit the ground running. Lose a close game, especially if you are the home team as Bath were in their 11-12 loss to Biarritz on the opening weekend, and you are then on the back foot, condemned to hope your conquerors slip up. Bath are a good example – even after just two matches, their destiny is not in their own hands.

To see the great European clubs emerging again does not mean the standard at the very top is poor. It suggests instead that, for all the money many of the ambitious other clubs are splashing around, they are still well short of the quality and cohesion they undoubtedly require to prosper in this tournament.

Not that that will bother the likes of Toulouse, Leicester, Munster and Biarritz. If there is another final involving any of that quartet, we can be certain it won’t lack for drama or excitement.