By Alan Dymock
WE MAY be celebrating the end of a superb competition, but as the Heineken Cup 2013/14 is here we thought it would be worth putting on the party hats, popping some corks and toasting the beauty of the great European race.
This weekend throws up some mouth-watering clashes and here we list 10 players you should keep your peepers peeled for.
Having moved from Castres to Toulouse this summer the big lock – who often looks like he would love to break from the restraints of set-pieces – has helped Toulouse tie for the lead in the Top 14 and despite a wobbly start to their domestic campaign they have righted themselves. They are also one of the teams in France that actually cares about Europe.
Facing Zebre, it is likely that the four-time winners will spend a lot of time on the front foot and with Tekori’s bulk he could have a field day.
Having played no rugby for some time, Benjamin is back and getting his first start of the season on the right wing against Ulster’s Tommy Bowe. A big ask for your first trot out, but he is having to play there because of a head-knock to Blaine Scully.
At Ravenhill on a Friday night against the T-100-like Bowe? Welcome back, Miles…
Connacht may not be fancied to dent anyone in this competition, but to have a second-row who has won Super Rugby titles and who adds quality to a pack must be watched in an elite competition and they don’t come more hefty or elite than Saracens.
The Ulster No.8 had a magnificent season last time round and Ulster will still be smarting from their late Heineken slip and lost RaboDirect Pro12 final. Matching him up against Jordan Crane and another challenging forward pack on Friday night could be good for all rugby fans.
The sure-booted scrum-half helped Castres to lift an unlikely Top 14 title last year and while they are languishing this time round, anything can happen in the Heineken Cup. Facing off against a yapping Kahn Fotuali’i of Northampton Saints should help Kockott to train his concentration on kicking well down the tramlines, owning his own back-row and scaring the posts with every place kick. If he really does have the quality we all expect he has, Kockott could be a revelation on Saturday if the best laid plans come off.
A populist choice? Obviously, but he is doing well on the hoof and looks to have settled in Northampton. He also adores the big stage. Don’t be surprised if the Welsh wonder opens up his stride at a time when he really should be passing to a team-mate from deep. He is one of the players who is allowed to do things like that…
Perpignan travel to Gloucester at a time when the young west country side are umming and ahing about whether they are doing things the right way. So Italian international Benvenuti may seem like an odd choice to some, but the way he reliably links and helps back-up players like James Hook means that he could be worth dedicating some watching time to.
Gopperth didn’t start against Munster at the weekend and many thought that such a move meant Ian Madigan would be the favoured fly-half during big games, but the Kiwi has since been re-instated for Saturday’s game away to the Ospreys. With three penalties, a conversion and a drop-goal against Ospreys when the sides drew 29-all earlier in the season, Gopperth should be right up for renewing his battle with Dan Biggar.
Another obvious choice, but the man with the Oligarch-embarrassing salary moved to Paris not only for the lifestyle and riches, but because he wanted to taste success somewhere else. This will be an intense study of whether Project Racing is working so far with a game against Clermont to ‘enjoy.’
There are so many players for Toulon that we could name-check and coo over, but it is surprising how many are writing off a Glasgow Warriors team that have won five games from five in the Pro12 and who are playing well.
The true test of how this game is going will be in the scrum where Lion Ryan Grant will hunker down to face A.N. Oversees-International. It is the kind of challenge Test players love.