By Gavin Mortimer
WITH THE 2012-13 Heineken Cup starting on Friday how healthy are the French clubs ahead of the opening round? Runaway Top 14 leaders Toulon play Montpellier on Sunday evening but elsewhere the best of Britain and Ireland face France’s finest.
Ulster v CASTRES, pool 4
Currently sixth in the Top 14, Castres limbered up for the Heineken Cup trip to Belfast with an impressive 16-13 defeat of Clermont last weekend in which their South African scrum-half Rory Kockott scored 11 points to extend his lead as the league’s top points scorer this season. Depressingly, however, there are signs suggesting Castres have already decided to focus their limited resources on the domestic league. Three of last week’s back division are rested for the trip to Ulster including fly-half Rémi Talès.
RACING METRO v Munster, pool 1
Beaten in their last two matches and lying seventh in the table, Racing Metro are once more failing to live up to their reputation. Last week’s home defeat to Montpellier was particularly painful and led coach Gonzalo Quesada to answer questions about his future. One ray of hope for Racing lies in new recruit Olly Barkley. The former Bath fly-half made his first appearance for his new club as a second-half sub and could well start on Saturday at the Stade de France.
CLERMONT v Scarlets, pool 5
Clermont suffered only their second reverse of the season last week away at Castres, a defeat that leaves them third in the Top 14. Unbeaten at home for three years, Clermont have nonetheless failed to dominate teams on their home patch the way they once did. Racing lost by a solitary point and Stade Francais were edged out a fortnight ago by a 79th minute drop goal from Brock James. Coach Vern Cotter knows they’ll have to improve against the Scarlets, saying this week: “They’re a team of internationals crammed with talent. After their successful start to the season they’re going to arrive full of confidence.”
Harlequins v BIARRITZ, pool 3
Biarritz are in crisis. Without a win in their last four matches, Biarritz were beaten at home by Bayonne in the Basque derby a fortnight ago and last week suffered a humiliating 36-9 mauling at the hands of Toulon. If that wasn’t depressing enough, the latest medical bulletin on talismanic No8 Imanol Harinordoquy announced he’s still some way off playing his first match of the season. With experienced internationals Jerome Thion and Dimitri Yachvili also out injured, Biarritz travel to London low on morale. “We’re going to play in another tournament and we have to find the positive things to help us regroup,” Serge Milhas after the Toulon hammering.
TOULOUSE v Leicester, pool 2
On the surface Toulouse go into the Heineken Cup bang on form. The reigning French champions have won their last three matches, including a 32-9 defeat of Toulon a fortnight ago. But that that was a second-string Toulon side and the manner of last week’s 34-32 win over second from bottom Bordeaux-Begles illustrated the weaknesses in this Toulouse squad. Early in the second-half they trailed Bordeaux 29-10 and only a late surge, coupled with an exhausted opposition, saw Toulouse home. Defeats to Biarritz and Perpignan have shown Guy Noves squad is far from infallible and vice-captain Jean Bouilhou knows they will have to up their game against Leicester. Speaking in the aftermath of the win against Bordeaux he said: “If we play [against Leicester] the way we did tonight then it’s going to be very, very unpleasant. We’ve been warned.”