HEC Preview: Pools 3 & 4

Pool 3: Leinster, Ooooooohhh Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier

Pedigree: Significant.  Leinster have won two out of the last three, and Bath won the Cup way back when in 1998.  Montpellier are taking their bow in the tournament, and Glasgow traditionally make up the numbers, but have provided the odd scalp.

Preview: When the pools were drawn, this looked an exceptionally kind draw for Leinster.  As European champions, they’ll be looking to put up a staunch defence of their Cup.  But history has shown the difficulty of retaining the trophy, and the departure of Nathan Hines and the deeply unfortunate injuries to Shaggy and Drico have made things a bit sticky.  Without those three, it’s hard to see Leinster being quite as powerful on all fronts as they were last season.  We expect them to be involved at the sharp end, but back-to-back Heinos may be a step beyond them.

Bath are a great old club in a magnificent town, but a pretty average team, despite the press banging on like a stuck record about the “running game” they last played in the 1990s.  The club is still in the process of rebuilding after the drug scandals in 2008, and the fact that Matt Banahan is their go-to guy says a lot.  Stephen Donald arrives fresh from a bizarre ascendance to hero status in Kiwiland and should give them a bit of solidity at 10, but they don’t appear to have the sort of gnarled pack that can deliver wins on the road.

Glasgow won’t threaten the knockout stages, and will be content to register a couple of home wins.  The news yesterday that Richie Gray is bound for Sale (!) in June is further indication of the sad state of Scottish rugby.

Montpellier are exactly the sort of French team that throws a Gallic shrug at the Heino and decides to concentrate on the South of France Drop Goal and Scrummaging Competition for the winter months.  They’ve won just twice in the Top 14 this season, but with their inspirational backrows Ouedraogo and Gorgodze back in harness, they will be far better than that suggests.  They open with Leinster at home.  Ideally, you would want to be going to the south of France in round five or six, when they’re out and no longer interested (see last year’s visit to Racing Metro), not in round one when the tournament still has novelty and they want to take a scalp for their fans.  It makes for an awkward opening tie for the holders.

Verdict: Leinster to win the pool, but not as comfortably as some suggest.  Bath second, but to miss out on Amlin qualification.

Pool 4: Leicester, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Aironi

Pedigree: Bags of it.  Leicester were champions in 2001 and 2002 and Ulster, as they love to remind everyone, won the Cup in 1999 – possibly before Munster did, but Egg Chaser is never the best on dates, so he can’t be sure.  Clermont have yet to make the impact their talent suggests they should.

Preview: Something of a pool of death, and one where the ‘As it Stands’ pool may be making a frequent appearance in the corner of the pool during Matchday 6.

Let’s get Aironi out of the way, shall we?  They haven’t improved their results from last year in the Rabo and will be on the end of six thrashings in this pool.  Done.

Each of the other three effectively starts with 10 points in the bag, and tries to climb their way to 20 or 21, which should get you through, as there’s a good chance of two teams qualifying from this one.  Don’t be surprised to see each of the Big Three win both home games against one another, in which case this will come down to who can secure those precious losing bonus points on the road.  Leinster and Munster can point to defeats in the Stade Marcel Michelin that felt like wins.  Can Ulster do the same?  It looks a year too early for them.  They have three outstanding forwards; Ferris, Best and Muller, and all must stay fit and at their peak.  Even with that trio they look one flanker short of really competing. If their pack managed to get quick, clean ball for their spritely backs, all bets are off, but they need 5 points from the first 2 weeks for starters.

Leicester are in the bottom half of the Premiership, and don’t look the force of yore.  They’ll always have a doughty spirit and a solid lineout, but with Ben Youngs set for an extended period on the sidelines, you feel they’ll plod rather than soar.  They’re usually good for a place in the knockout stages though, and Welford Road remains one of the toughest grounds in which to win.

Which brings us to the mighty Clermont.  This is their centenery year and they want silverware, after something of a victory lap last season.  Sivivatu has arrived to give them some real running threat, and they can mix and match David Skrela and Brock James at fly half.  Their pack is beastly.  They look the complete package, and can top this group.  Win at Ravenhill on Saturday and you can get your money out and bet on them to win the competition.

Verdict: Clermont to win the group, with Leicester to squeeze through as runners-up.

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1 Comment

  1. Actually quite nervous about Leinster this weekend actually, I think 1 to 15 on paper Leinster have the stronger team but Montpellier do have enough quality to make it a very difficult afternoon. However I would say that if Leinster win this game I think they'll be in the driving seat for a home quarter final. Regardless of himself, Horgan and Hines being missing from the team from the Cardiff XV if Leinster have real aspirations to be a top European side they can't use these injuries and personal losses as an excuse for poor performance. Regardless of BOD's absence the likes of Cullen, Heaslip, Jennings, Sexton and Nacewa should see Leinster do enough to cement a home quarter final come April.

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