Three teams will make their Heineken Cup debuts at the weekend with Toulon, last season’s Amlin Challenge Cup finalists, the only one of the trio to enjoy home advantage in Round 1 with the Ospreys the opposition at Stade Felix-Mayol on Saturday afternoon.
Aironi Rugby, the new Italian franchise, go to Belfast to face Ulster Rugby at Ravenhill on the opening night with Racing Metro 92 meeting 2009 champions Leinster at the RDS.
And Raphael Ibanez, who has carved his own special niche in Heineken Cup history, believes the 16th competition between the cream of European rugby clubs will be the best yet – with most of the usual suspects in the mix come the serious business end of the tournament.
Ibanez remains the only front five forward to score a Heineken Cup final try, racing down the touchline from a cheeky line-out set move on the way to being part of the 25-9 London Wasps winners against Leicester Tigers in 2007.
“This has all the potential to be the most exciting competition ever,” said the former French captain whose 98 caps are the world record for a hooker.
“It is the tournament every single player wants to play in. It brings out the best in you and it really is like a dream come true when you are crowned European champions.”
RACING METRO 92
“They are really flying in the Top 14 and they have certainly put down a marker displaying their intentions on the home front.
“When Pierre Berbizier took over he was very focused on the set pieces, on ensuring the side had solid foundations.
“But now they have improved their all round game and they have a potentially hugely dangerous offensive game. They have nothing to lose and the concentration Pierre has brought to their game is just what is required to win such important matches against teams like Leinster.
“What a fantastic squad they have put together – the hugely talented new players they have signed really give them great depth.
“They were an absolute revelation last season and showed they could play as a team.
“When they are on song they are potentially one of the most dangerous sides around. It was a long campaign for them last season and maybe the Amlin Challenge Cup final was just one mountain to high for them to climb.
“A lot of the focus is, quite naturally, on Jonny Wilkinson. He has always been a fierce competitor but he really is like a new man since his move to Toulon, he is loving his rugby and providing that essential cool head that the team needs.
“When you build any new team you need time and it seems to be quite difficult for them to gel as a team. In such a big competition as the Heineken Cup you really cannot afford to be feeling your way and their performance at Ulster will be critical.”