HEC Preview: Pool 5 & Pool 6

Pool 5: Biarritz, Saracens, Ospreys, Treviso

Pedigree: Solid. Biarritz have two final appearances on their CV, losing both narrowly. The most recent was in 2010, where they shunted the Liginds into the dust before losing to Toulouse in the final. Sarries were Glen Jackson-inspired semi-finalists in 2008, when they almost upset the Munster bandwagon. Ospreys have a smattering of knockout experience and Treviso have little to shout about – although they get closer to scalping a big name every year.

Preview: The experience of Biarritz throws up a frequently-cited curiosity of the HEC draw. Because, inevitably, some French side with little European pedigree qualifies every year (e.g. Agen, Bourgoin, Montauban, Racing Metro, Montpellier) and must be kept apart from other French sides, top seeded French teams tend to draw a bunny e.g. Italian teams. Which means they are much more likely to qualify for the knockout stages and hence keep their top rating, then draw a bunny, etc, etc. Biarritz are a functional side built around a garganutan pack, Dmitri Yachvili’s on-field generalship and Damien Traille’s boot – but they are pretty average, and “boast” Iain Balshaw in their backline. Still, it’s a formula that works well in European rugby, and they have punched above their weight.

They know how to take 10 points from Italian sides (notwithstanding last year’s shock defeat to Aironi), get losing bonus points away and then blow teams apart at home (or in San Sebastian) – they will be very hard to stop in this pool, in spite of their precarious position in the Top 14

Sarries, on paper, carry a real threat. They are English champions (albeit with a smattering of South African influence) and aren’t easily beaten. Their problem might be in picking up enough bonus points to qualify, as they aren’t full of tries. They will win their home games against the two outsiders, but could struggle to seal the deal away, especially in Biarritz, and double especially because they plan to bring the Basques to Cape Town in January for their “home” game – with the kind of climate that the Biarritz lads will prefer to the muck, bosh and boot of North Lahndahn.

The Hairsprays have started the RaboMagners in chipper fashion, careering along happily, and with the tightest defence in the league. The jettisoning of the like of Jerry Collins and Mike Philips and banning of fake tan seems to have helped with team spirit, and the club are in a better place. At home, they are strong and are difficult to beat – they will be looking to be in the mix for the knockouts, but won’t qualify this year.

Treviso are interesting – they are far away from the worst side in Europe now, and will be aiming for a home win to put in their locker – any of these three constitute a scalp and any win would be a big step forward for the Italians.

Verdict: Biarritz to cruise the pool, and maybe even get a home quarter-final. Sarries should win enough games to contend for a quarter-final as best runners-up, but could regret the holiday in the Cape. We think if Quins fail to beat Toulouse at home in Pool 6, Sarries are through.

Pool 6: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht

Pedigree: The most decorated group in the compeition, and all due to Toulouse – 4 wins and 2 runners-up appearances trumps everyone else. Gloucester reached the knock-out stages in 2008, and Quins in 2010, but both lost to Irish opposition, in Quins case in spite of a little help from Count Drac. Connacht are making their HEC debut.

Preview: Toulouse never stop – last year they did well in the Top 14, and gave Leinster their toughest game of the HEC in the semi-final. And it was still not good enough. They have recruited well over the summer and look primed for another huge season. Luke McAlister has hit the ground running, and a pool short on sharks will be welcome – they had a huge RWC contingent who they will want firing on all cylinders in May, the integration process of Dusautoir et al may determine the level of silverware spending the summer under Guy Noves’ beady gaze.

Quins have started the English season like a train – 10 from 10 in all competitions, and playing a pretty attractive brand of rugby as well. They have undoubtedly been helped by having virtually a full team throughout the RWC, including Nick Evans and potential FEC Chris Robshaw. We don’t doubt the momentum won’t last, but if they get an away win at Gloucester in week 2, they are contenders for the knockout stages.

Gloucester themselves have started well in England, but are another team which had a low RWC quotient, and a trip to Toulouse will not be pleasant to start things off. The game with Quins will determine their tournament, and if they lose, they may not have the stomach for the one game Connacht will fancy themselves for in week 3 – they are firm outsiders now, but don’t rule them out if they win well in week 2.

Connacht themselves represent 10 points in the bag for Toulouse and Quins, and at least 6 for Gloucester. They will target the Cherry and Whites and hope the Atlantic whips up a winter storm, but it probably won’t be enough – this is a step way beyond what Connacht have experienced, and while it’s great to see a new name in the tournamnt, it could get very grizzly in January.

Verdict: Toulouse will stroll this pool, without needing (or wanting) to get out of third gear. Quins have a chance of sneaking into the quarter-finals on their coat-tails if they beat Gloucester in week 2 – if they don’t they will need to beat Toulouse at home. Connacht to get zero wins, regretably.

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