Teams: Biarritz, Connacht, Harlequins, Zebre
McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Very high. Zebre didn’t even exist last season, and Connacht finished 8th in the Pro12 and got in due to Leinster’s heroics. Biarritz also got in the back door by winning the Amlin, so only Quins actually qualified of right.
Preview: Forewarned is forearmed for Quins here – they got mugged in Galway last year and it’s hard to see a repeat. Ditto for Biarritz, who lost in Aironi two years ago – the Zebre squad is largely the same, and the circumstances in which the Basques and Londoners won’t get four wins from the double bunnies are pretty hard to imagine. Biarritz are certainly more vulnerable, but they have oodles of experience in this competition.
Factor in a couple of home bonus points, and both of the big guns will expect to qualify – as well they should. Quins look better able to hoover up try bonus points, particularly away from home, so, if they split the head-to-heads, we would still expect to see the English champions emerge on top.
From a Connacht perspective, this pool presents both opportunities and threats – Zebre should easily be taken at home, but Zebre will see Connacht as their target for a home win as well. Strange as it may sound, if Elwood’s men come out of this with two wins over Zebre, they will feel disappointed. We think that’s how it going to transpire – their other opponents look a little too streetwise to be beaten. On l’autre hand, if Connacht do beat one of the biggies, it will immediately supercede last year’s Quins results as their best ever European result. So, feast or famine, but them’s the margins at this level!
Verdict: Quins surprised us last season with their fortitude at the business end of the Premiership season, particularly after their meltdown in the Sportsground. That mental strength, allied to the genius of Nuck Ivans and the shrewd hand of Conor O’Shea, should steer them through as group winners and a home quarter final. Biarritz should come through on their coat tails as one of the wild cards. Connacht to do the double over Zebre – but that’s it.