Pool 5: Biarritz, Saracens, Ospreys, Treviso
Pedigree: Solid. Biarritz have two final appearances on their CV, losing both narrowly. The most recent was in 2010, where they shunted the Liginds into the dust before losing to Toulouse in the final. Sarries were Glen Jackson-inspired semi-finalists in 2008, when they almost upset the Munster bandwagon. Ospreys have a smattering of knockout experience and Treviso have little to shout about – although they get closer to scalping a big name every year.
Verdict: Biarritz to cruise the pool, and maybe even get a home quarter-final. Sarries should win enough games to contend for a quarter-final as best runners-up, but could regret the holiday in the Cape. We think if Quins fail to beat Toulouse at home in Pool 6, Sarries are through.
Pool 6: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht
Pedigree: The most decorated group in the compeition, and all due to Toulouse – 4 wins and 2 runners-up appearances trumps everyone else. Gloucester reached the knock-out stages in 2008, and Quins in 2010, but both lost to Irish opposition, in Quins case in spite of a little help from Count Drac. Connacht are making their HEC debut.
Preview: Toulouse never stop – last year they did well in the Top 14, and gave Leinster their toughest game of the HEC in the semi-final. And it was still not good enough. They have recruited well over the summer and look primed for another huge season. Luke McAlister has hit the ground running, and a pool short on sharks will be welcome – they had a huge RWC contingent who they will want firing on all cylinders in May, the integration process of Dusautoir et al may determine the level of silverware spending the summer under Guy Noves’ beady gaze.
Quins have started the English season like a train – 10 from 10 in all competitions, and playing a pretty attractive brand of rugby as well. They have undoubtedly been helped by having virtually a full team throughout the RWC, including Nick Evans and potential FEC Chris Robshaw. We don’t doubt the momentum won’t last, but if they get an away win at Gloucester in week 2, they are contenders for the knockout stages.
Gloucester themselves have started well in England, but are another team which had a low RWC quotient, and a trip to Toulouse will not be pleasant to start things off. The game with Quins will determine their tournament, and if they lose, they may not have the stomach for the one game Connacht will fancy themselves for in week 3 – they are firm outsiders now, but don’t rule them out if they win well in week 2.
Connacht themselves represent 10 points in the bag for Toulouse and Quins, and at least 6 for Gloucester. They will target the Cherry and Whites and hope the Atlantic whips up a winter storm, but it probably won’t be enough – this is a step way beyond what Connacht have experienced, and while it’s great to see a new name in the tournamnt, it could get very grizzly in January.
Verdict: Toulouse will stroll this pool, without needing (or wanting) to get out of third gear. Quins have a chance of sneaking into the quarter-finals on their coat-tails if they beat Gloucester in week 2 – if they don’t they will need to beat Toulouse at home. Connacht to get zero wins, regretably.