The clock is ticking until the big kickoff. Here’s how we read the six pools.
Edinburgh are poster children for the unfairness of the Heineken Cup structure in the eyes of the English clubs. They completely phoned it in during the latter half of their Pro 12 season last year, eventually finishing 11th of twelve, but yet they could afford to concentrate their efforts on their European campaign and so they ended up picking off Toulouse in the quarter final round. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that something similar could happen here. Saracens will beat most teams up front but they will be vulnerable to good expansive back line play, while Racing Metro will beat most teams at home, but they will also find it difficult to get away wins. However their fixture in Brussels against Saracens represents a great opportunity. Munster for their part won’t be far away, but there are no potential competition winners in this pool and in a group without that kind of class, anyone can win and the biggest price is thus potentially the most attractive. Edinburgh it is, then, by so narrow a margin that we’re not going to put a bet on record.
Now we’re talking. Leicester, Toulouse, Ospreys and a real banana skin team in Treviso – this is classic European rugby. The Ospreys have shed a lot of their big name players but don’t look to have paid the price in terms of quality, while there are also question marks over Leicester and Toulouse. Both of these big name clubs have a rich European history, but domestically Leicester are underwhelming, while there is something of a transition period underway at Toulouse. That said, they are Toulouse, so transition or not, they’re at the head of the Top 14 table and look like imposing contenders in this competition too – some transition. Nonetheless from a betting point of view, the Ospreys at 11/2 have to be considered. They’re playing good rugby, they’ve already had their slip up in Italy this year (somebody is going to lose out there) and neither of the two big guns look so good as to rule out a win for the best of the Welsh sides.
Now we’re quiet again. It’s almost impossible to see Connacht or Zebre beating anyone other than each other, particularly because last year Harlequins tripped up in Galway while Biarritz lost out to Aironi. These two big clubs are forewarned and forearmed. After showing great character to win the Premiership last season, Harlequins get the nod by a narrow margin.
At the risk of repeating ourselves from the outright preview, Ulster look to have made positive strides this year and they should be the favourites here – quite why Youwin.com are laying 8/5 about them topping their pool is a mystery. Northampton will be the biggest obstacles naturally enough, since Castres will presumably phone it in away from home and Glasgow just aren’t good enough. However the English side looked very ordinary at the weekend and they are possibly more likely to slip up against those two opponents than the Ulster men.
This is the one the purists are really looking forward to after Leinster and Clermont Auvergne played out one of the best games of the year last season in France. Clermont have taken even more positive steps forward while it’s not obvious that Leinster have done enough to replace Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn. If Devin Toner doesn’t graduate to international class very soon, Leinster could have a real problem in the second row. The Exeter Chiefs may cause an upset somewhere along the line at home but a winless debut in this competition is the most likely outcome for them, while the Llanelli Scarlets cannot be ruled out but they will find it almost impossible to grind out wins away from home with their relatively lightweight pack. Clermont don’t have any obvious weaknesses except a tendency not to produce their best rugby away from home. Still, they can deny Leinster a losing bonus this year and that could be critical.
Montpellier don’t care about European Rugby, Sale would like to care but will need to concentrate on avoiding relegation at home, and Cardiff care deeply but they are painfully out of their depth at the same time. If Toulon don’t win this pool, chairman Mourad Boudjellal is likely to ask searching questions about why he’s not getting a return on his investment.
Pool Two: Ospreys to win @ 11/2, 1pt stake
Pool Four: Tommy Bowe to be top pool tryscorer @ 5/1, 1pt stake
Pool Five: Clermont Auvergne to win @ 13/8, 2pt stake
Pool Six: Toulon to win @ 4/7, 3pt stake
Profit/Loss to date: -0.22 points (tracking started from Friday Aug 10th 2012; 25.5 points staked, -0.9% ROI – not including 16.5pts of unsettled antepost bets)