HEC Preview: Pool 1 & Pool 2

Pool 1: Munster, Northampton, Castres, Scarlets

Pedigree: Huge. Munster are Heineken Cup royalty, and the Saints are no slouches either – 3 victories between them and 3 other final appearances. The Scarlets have a few semi-finals to boast of, most recently in 2007 when Ireland’s favourite un-droppable Welshman, Simon Easterby, led them past Munster. Castres have no history of note, but look a team on the rise, domestically at least.

Preview: Two years ago, Munster and Northampton were paired together in a memorable series of pool games and quarter-final. The Saints felt that they had the Liginds’ number after the pool, but they were taught a lesson in European Cup rugby in the quarter-final. And it’s a lesson they paid heed to, making the final last year with a series of gritty wins. Rope-a-dope was unlikely to work against Leinster, so they came out throwing the ball around and very nearly pulled it off. Munster, meanwhile, failed to make the knockout stages for the first time in 10 years in atypically harum-scarum fashion.

It certainly gives the impression the graphs of these two crossed last year, and we would agree. The Saints should win in Franklins Gardens and will be targetting Thomond Park – Munster will do well to tie this head-to-head in match points. Castres are very tough at home, but lay down like lambs away – they won’t care about the HEC, but won’t want to give up a proud home record. Northampton’s pack looks not only higher in quality, but more gnarled than Munster’s, and are better equipped to win in France.  They have a bit more depth this year after some good recruiting (Vasily Artemiev has arrived with a bang) and their St. Boshingtons contingent will be hungry to restore battered reputations.

The Scarlets are the joker here – they will be looking to break games up and give their exciting young backs plenty of quick ball – they could win a couple of games, but won’t be in the shake-up.

It will ultimately come down to who is better at winning away from home, and that’s something Munster failed to do last year in a notably weaker pool than this one – only Toulon was an intimidating place to visit. Forget the Miracle Match – getting through this pool will be the greatest escape of the lot.

Verdict: Northampton to win the pool and advance.  Munster into the AmlinVase

Pool 2: Cardiff, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro

Pedigree: Not great, but not as bad as you might think – Cardiff were runners-up in the first tournament, and have a few semi-finals as well – most recently in 2009, when Leicester beat them on penalties. Irish, amazingly, were semi-finalists as recently as 2008, when Toulouse sent them packing. Edinburgh and Racing have no achievements to speak of at this level.

Preview: The Group of Dearth – whoever ups their game here will win it. Let’s start with the least likely – Edinburgh. The Scots have regressed badly since their top 4 Magners finish a few years ago, and pretty much the only good thing on the horizon is Tim Visser. They will fancy themselves at home to Irish, and Cardiff and (particularly) Racing if they take their eye off the ball. Away, they will be eviscerated.

Irish are almost as bad – they have replaced the bosh-tastic but reasonably decent Seilala Mapasua with the bosh-tastic and terrible Shontayne Hape. Don’t expect fireworks in Reading – just the way Biiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob likes it. Irish will beat Embra at home, and probably Racing Metro, but achieve nothing else.

So its between Cardiff and Racing Metro. The French side will win all their home games, but won’t be too bothered about wininng away – they should knock off Embra, but might get well beaten in Wales. Cardiff have underachived given the stellar names in their squad in recent years, and they have Sam Warburton, the new Tana Umaga Richie McCaw and a rejuvenated Jamie Roberts. The structure of the RaboCiderPro12 will allow them to target games, and this pool is there for the taking if they get it right.

Verdict: Cardiff will win it, and continue pushing forward the feel-good factor in Welsh rugby. Racing Metro to get the Amlin booby prize

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