Saracens lead charge into heart of Europe

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The Independent Online

Not even the most inspired visionaries of European rugby union can take the Heineken Cup to the world, for the simple reason that down in the beautiful south, where Olympic-soaked Sydney is heaven and Super 12 is king, the superiority complex is so deeply tattooed on the sporting psyche that no tournament from the wrong side of the equator could ever be worth a XXXX.

Not even the most inspired visionaries of European rugby union can take the Heineken Cup to the world, for the simple reason that down in the beautiful south, where Olympic-soaked Sydney is heaven and Super 12 is king, the superiority complex is so deeply tattooed on the sporting psyche that no tournament from the wrong side of the equator could ever be worth a XXXX.

So the mere mortals of the north must console themselves with the fact that the world is beginning to come to the Heineken Cup. All shapes, all sizes, all colours, all creeds. This year's Heineken is a global tournament in miniature, a melting pot of innovative ideas and grand designs.

This time three years ago, protectionism was the name of the game in red rose country. Clive Woodward, the England coach, would point a lofty finger at the forthcoming weekend fixtures and say something along these lines: "Why the hell should I bother getting out of bed? Every position I'm interested in is filled by a foreigner on a pension." (The fact that he was simultaneously supporting a Chelsea football team entirely uncontaminated by Englishmen was neither here nor there, apparently). Woodward was not alone, either. There were more Little Englanders in the corridors and committee rooms of Twickenham than can now be found in William Hague's shadow cabinet.

How times change. Woodward is quite the internationalist these days: he may continue to use the flag of St George as a duvet cover, but he happily acknowledges that the Jason Littles and Tim Horans of this world can educate an entire generation of fresh-faced wannabes in the realities of the modern game.

But we are not simply talking England here: the six élite French clubs involved in this season's Heineken, the first kick of which will be seen in Edinburgh this evening, are positively dripping overseas imports. Indeed, it is possible to select a very decent back division of Glen Osborne, Norm Berryman, Frano Botica, Gregor Townsend, Brian Lima, Lee Stensness and Morgan Williams from Biarritz, Castres, Stade Français and Toulouse alone.

The Welsh are operating along similar lines, if a little less extravagantly.

Fancy a pack of Rod Snow, Fe'ao Vunipola, Adrian Garvey, Emori Katalau, Simon Raiwalui, Dan Baugh, Wayne Fyvie and Gary Teichmann? Most coaches would kill for it. Graham Henry, now in charge of the Lions as well as Wales, is not getting his undies in a knot about Fijian second rows blocking out young guns from the valleys; instead, he is interested in seeing how a seriously brilliant prospect like Alix Popham, the Newport flanker, develops in the company of a one-in-a-million No 8 like Teichmann. As the late Kenneth Clark pointed out in his landmark television series Civilisation: "When something is really vital to us, internationalism is accepted unhesitatingly."

And in the rugby sense, the Heineken Cup is as vital as it gets. Chronic shoulder problems prevented Matt Dawson, the England scrum-half, from sharing in Northampton's triumph over Munster in last season's final, yet he was still able to say this as the tournament hierarchy gathered in London for Tuesday's launch: "What happened back in May made me understand that European rugby is bigger than the club, that it affects the whole community in a rugby town like ours. Every ambitious player is now looking to peak for the beginning of October, when the Heineken starts." François Pienaar, who led the Springboks to a World Cup before switching hemispheres to run Saracens, concurred. "This is where I start wishing I hadn't hung up my boots," he admitted, a trifle mournfully.

There is little doubt that in England, domestic Premiership rugby is a means to an end. Europe drives everything, commercially as much as competitively, so qualification is of the essence. The same goes for France; even though championship restructuring will see six clubs relegated to the back end of beyond next summer - those missing the cut may never be heard of again - the priority remains Continental rather than parochial. Maybe the fact that the two Scottish super-districts, Edinburgh Reivers and Glasgow Caledonians, qualify automatically explains their abject lack of success at this exalted level. Those forced to sweat blood for the chance to participate tend to be made of sterner stuff than those who are spoon-fed a place.

Certainly, the pampered Scottish contingent will catch a severe cold if they fail to meet fire with fire over the coming weeks. Edinburgh must travel to Biarritz, who have been raiding the transfer market in the same way that the Hole in the Wall Gang raided banks, while Glasgow must visit the unforgiving badlands of Pau. Tea parties are few and far between in those particular parts of south-west France and now that the Tricolores feel they have something to prove in this competition - no finalist last year, no trophy since 1997 - their welcomes are likely to be warmer than ever. "Everyone is ready, physically and mentally," growled the Biarritz captain, Jean-Michel Gonzalez, this week. How reassuring.

If the French have largely defined the tournament since its inception in 1995, they have also become subject the law of diminishing returns. During the inaugural campaign, when Toulouse were crowned champions after an extra-time victory over Cardiff, the Tricolore teams won 75 per cent of their matches. That figure has fallen year on year, reaching a new low of 52 per cent last season. The glib assumption that the French championship is the strongest domestic league in Europe has been well and truly rumbled: both Bath and Leicester have won in Toulouse, both Wasps and Harlequins have triumphed in Bourgoin.

Those victories came as monumental shocks to the French system: after all, most of their leading outfits - Stade Français, Brive, Montferrand, Perpignan, Bÿgles-Bordeaux, Dax - have never even looked like being beaten on home turf by a British, Irish or Italian side under Heineken auspices. Hence the heavy recruitment on the far side of the Channel, aided and abetted by the lack of a salary cap and the widespread public ownership of French stadiums, an enlightened arrangement that spares the clubs the worst excesses of economic pressure.

Castres, who participated in the first competition but have since been restricted to two appearances in the second-tier European Shield final, were among the most enthusiastic recruiters during the summer: Berryman of New Zealand will line up alongside Raphael Ibanez, the French captain in last year's World Cup, and the crack flanker Arnaud Costes, lured to Stade Pierre-Antoine from Perpignan and Montferrand respectively. Stade Français have pinched Pablo Lemoine from Bristol and Simon Mason from Ulster, as well as the line-out tail-gunner Patrick Tabacco from Colomiers. One way or another, the French are taking this personally.

So who will it be, up there on centre stage come the end of May? Saracens will surely lead the English charge, with Wasps not too far behind them.

Stade Français look monstrously strong, and there are good reasons to believe that Teichmann's Newport will make a dent on proceedings. Maybe Munster, shorn of Keith Wood but still full of blarney and bustle, will catch fire once again: certainly, Limerick will be among the more impregnable venues on the circuit. More than that, though, no man can say.

Take a deep breath and enjoy.