Teams: Toulon, Cardiff Blues, Sale Sharks, Montpellier
McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Medium. Cardiff made a mockery of the structure of European rugby by sacrificing the Pro12, where they finished 7th, for a
limp pool effort quarter final in the HEC, where Leinster thrashed them. That’s what McCafferty said anyway. The rest are genuinely elite, especially Sale.
Preview: The group of dearth. Is this the weakest pool ever drawn in the Heineken Cup? The only challenger would be Cardiff’s pool last season. It’s certainly an advert for changing the seeding structure. Remarkably, Cardiff are still somehow a top seed, but they look set for a dreadful season. They lost seven tries at home to Ulster two weeks ago. Similarly, Sale appear a lot worse than anybody (well, us anyway) could have expected. They’re winless (and useless) in the Premiership and staring down a season of fighting relegation. Europe will hardly be a priority.
Nor will it be for the two French boys, but Montpellier gave it a better go than their results suggested last season. They were on the end of a number of very tight results, be they draws or defeats. Had they held on for a deserved win against Leinster in round one it might all have been different. If the get some early momentum they might be a threat, and don’t underestimate how good Gorgodzilla is – he nearly dragged Georgia to victory over Scotland – a rudderless Cardiff should be a cinch.
For all that, though, this is Toulon’s to lose. They boast the sort of mega-squad that can be kept fresh for a dual challenge and have world class forwards in Steffon Armitage, Fernandez Lobbe and Khizarashvili, to name but three. And while they wouldn’t be the most likeable set-up, at least there’s the likes of
Bakkies Botha Simon Shaw and Johnny Wilkinson knocking around to provide a bit of common decency. Equally, they won’t be Castres Euro-bunnies – they want to rule the world. They made the knock-out stages in their first season (albeit at the expense of Top14 form), and are even better equipped this year.
Verdict: Hard to see any other outcome than Toulon to qualify, and they will target a home quarter-final; the other three to drown in a sea of mush.