By Alan Dymock
THE DRAW may not have been the most glamorous of affairs, resembling something between an IT lecture and an awards ceremony for engravers, but we now know the Heineken Cup fixtures for the pool stages.
The trophy had been fished out of the marina in Toulon and plonked on stage alongside ERC chairman Jean-Pierre Lux who pulled out a precession of baubles to tell us how the tournament is to be shaped in the early rounds. Come October it all starts again.
Friday 11 of that month sees the first terrifying arm-wrestle as Ulster host Leicester Tigers. The next day French champions Castres welcome the newly beefed-up backline of Northampton Saints and then Sunday bares witness to last year’s winners Toulon beginning their campaign at home to Glasgow Warriors, mere hours before the all-French clash between big-spending Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne.
It is also worth noting that over rounds three and four there will be double headers as pool rivals play each other home and away, back to back. In that period the fate of a group could be decided and there are match-ups to look out for. Tigers play Montpellier twice, Saints play Leinster home and away and there will be two big games between Racing and Harlequins. Throw in the unpredictable bouts between Gloucester and Edinburgh and there is plenty to savour.
By the time opponents from round one play again it could be all over. However, there is always the mathematician’s nightmare of tallying bonus points, compiling coefficients and contrasting scores to figure out who creeps into the knockout rounds and who falls out the trapdoor and into the Amlin Challenge Cup.
With this in mind, it would be worth preparing to watch the return showdown between Perpignan and Gloucester, in the south of France, Leinster versus Ospreys and Cardiff Blues versus Exeter Chiefs. There will be a few groups that are closer than a laser shave, and even then Saracens and Toulouse may just form one team and come up into the next stage, so hard is it to predict how the giants are going to far once they have dealt with Connacht and Zebre and faced each other…
There will be Heineken Cup fixtures that the neutral looks out for. You can roughly predict which groups will be tight nearing the end of the pool stages and there are clashes that cannot fail but erupt into beautifully savage rugby. Picking a winner out of all this, though? Well, whoever survives pool one or pool four will be hardened and confident about facing anyone come the knockout rounds.