Powering on: Nick Easter led a dominant Harlequins pack against Biarritz last weekend

by Ben Coles

A BRIEF scan of the results from Round One of the Heineken Cup highlighted that English sides may not be as far off the pace when it comes to the Heineken Cup as some had predicted before the tournament began.

Leicester’s poor decision-making cost them a win in Toulouse and Exeter were narrowly pipped in Dublin, but winning against Toulouse and Leinster away from home has always been the toughest of European challenges. Sale pulled off a comeback that Lazarus could be proud of against the Cardiff Blues and Northampton too responded with a barrage of tries after falling behind. Yet of the six English clubs competing in this season’s tournament, it was Harlequins and Saracens who truly laid down a marker on the opening weekend.

The English champions faced a test of their character early in the first half against Biarritz with Nick Evans forced to leave the field. The 32-year-old former All Black has been essential to Harlequins success over the last two seasons, but a capable deputy was needed. Step forward young fly-half Ben Botica who came on and filled the role beautifully, working well with Danny Care to control the tempo as the home pack turned the screw.

A 13-13 scoreline at half-time finished as 40-13. Biarritz won the Amlin Challenge Cup at The Stoop back in May but five months later, shorn of talismen Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili, they were torn apart. Harlequins bubbled in the group stages last year with a memorable wins in Toulouse and away at Gloucester but ultimately fell short of the latter stages. By starting with a bang, their odds to win the tournament have shortened.

As for Saracens, travelling to Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup last season was a horrible fixture. London Irish, Racing Métro and Cardiff all lost at Murrayfield, before four-time champions Toulouse also succumbed to the inventive Scottish side. For Saracens to then waltz into the Scottish capital and brutally dismantle the home side by scoring 45 unanswered points was a somewhat of a surprise. Edinburgh certainly had an off-day but the effectiveness of Steve Borthwick’s well-oiled lineout and vision of Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell comprehensively broke the will of the hosts.

By picking up five points in Round One, both Harlequins, Saracens and also Northampton have put themselves in Position A to make the quarter-finals. Leicester’s tough group and opening loss means they must beat the Ospreys at Welford Road, while Exeter must travel to Clermont and Llanelli and Sale have to contend with French moneybags Toulon.

But the manner of the performances from Harlequins and Saracens will have made other contenders for the title sit up and take notice. In May 2013, it will be six years since an English side last won the Heineken Cup, and although it’s early days, these two sides both appear to have wherewithal to break that run.

Follow Ben Coles on Twitter @bencoles_