Teams: Leinster, Clermont Auvergne, Llanelli Scarlets and Exeter
McCafferty Unfairness Factor: None! Meritocratic qualifiers all. Aside from the fact that Leinster and Scarlets will have cigars out in their namby pamby Pro12 while Clermont and Exeter will be locked in trench warfare in seeking to avoid relegation. Gah!
Verdict: Leinster. Meet Clermont. Ah, you know each other already. Remarkably, this is the fourth consecutive season these two European heavyweights have crashed into one another. And in the two seasons prior Clermont ran into a Munster side close to their peak. Tough break, but it is making for one of the best pan-European rivalries around. The games between Clermont and Leinster have generally been riveting and this season should be no different.
This is a hard group from top to bottom, though, and not just a two-way shoot-out. Exeter’s progress from Championship dwellers to European qualifiers has been astounding. While qualifying from the pool will be beyond them, nobody should take a trip to their atmospheric Sandy Park stadium lightly.
And what of Scarlets, the most enigmatic of Wales’ enigmatic regional teams? They play with great panache and can score from anywhere, but the great breakthrough we’ve been anticipating has yet to happen. Last year they found themselves two from two after winning in Northampton – the pool looked there for the taking, but they couldn’t muster a home win against an injury-stricken Munster. They’ve recruited to bolster the tight five – their achilles heel – but will it be good enough to stay with the big boys? And what of Rhys Priestland, their mercurial fly-half? We’ve yet to see enough to convince us he’s any more than a flash in the pan. We just don’t know how they’ll do.
They start the pool with a trip to the Marcel Michelin, where Clermont will win all their home games, but question marks remain over their away form. For a European powerhouse, their away record is dismal. Last year’s deconstruction of Saracens looked to have set the record straight, but it will pale beside a trip to the Palindrome in Decmeber, where Leinster have grown to feel very comfortable. Their awesome power, great depth and monstrous backs require no further discussion here.
So, to Leinster. Back-to-back champions, the attacking supremos, looking for a hat-trick in their own back yard, but is this one step too far? They’re without Sean O’Brien for the first two rounds, their backline is injured and they have failed to plug the gap left by Nathan Hines and then Brad Thorn in the second row. Without Thorn, can they match the power of Clermont? Add to this a curiously leaky defence, and it’s time to get edgy.
There’s a growing feeling that this is the season Clermont finally get on top of the champions. Leinster’s injury list is crippling and just how close Clermont came to winning that semi-final in Bordeaux is fresh in everyone’s memory. Clermont will be deperate to finally put one over on them.
It’s possible that both wil get out of the pool, but that (and much else) will depend hugely on what happens in week two. In that round, Leinster travel to Llanelli and Clermont to Exeter. We’ll see just how much appetite Clermont have for digging out a result in an obscure corner of Europe. Assuming they beat Llanelli in round one also, a win will put them in the position of aiming to be three from three when Leinster roll into town in December, which would leave them in control of the pool.
To hang on to their coat-tails, Leinster would need to win in Llanelli. This Scarlets team is primed to pounce on the sort of soft defence Leinster have put up in recent weeks – indeed they have already done so this season. It’s a very difficult looking fixture for the champions, especially with their injury list. It’s going to be a case of hanging in there, trying to sneak the win and hoping that they can get their best team out in December.
Verdict: We’re going to say Leinster and Clermont to qualify, but with reservations. Ordinarily in a pool with two very strong teams, the head-to-head dictates the outcome, but we’re identifying Round Two’s tricky away games as the key week. If they both get through those, they can split the points on the head-to-head and both should qualify, with bonus points sorting out the order. Leinster probably deserve some trust after the last 2 years, but the absence of a beastly second might just mean Clermont to win the pool, Leinster through as a best runner-up.