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Preview of the Heineken Cup 2007-08

So after a long summer of worrying about it's very existence, the Heineken Cup returns this weekend.  The Heineken Cup has a special place in the hearts of Irish rugby fans as it's credited with inspiring the revival in Irish rugby that we've seen in the last eight years.  In the grim early days of professionalism, Ireland looked certain to remain the paupers of European rugby.  But the success of the provinces made players believe that not only could they compete with the English and French clubs, they could beat them.  The confidence at provincial level fed into the national team and the wins came.

The confidence in Ireland reached it's zenith in the build-up to the recent World Cup, where Ireland were rated by many as potential winners.  Of course the World Cup campaign was an unmitigated disaster and now Irish rugby has returned to it's lowest ebb since the '99 tournament.  Once again, Irish fans will look to the Heineken Cup to restore their faith.  However even the Heineken Cup may not provide it's usual solace thanks to a very difficult draw.

The inequities of the Heineken Cup draw have thrown up three relatively easy pools and three murderously hard ones.  Unfortunately for the Irish provinces they all feature in the tougher pools.  Ulster face the Ospreys, Gloucester and Bourgoin.  The Ospreys and Gloucester are up and coming sides who've both recruited impressively during the summer.  Bourgoin's attitude to the competition has stank in the past, but their pride can make them tough to beat at home.  So that's a pretty tough pool, but for once Ulster's draw is not the toughest.

Munster have arguably the toughest group of the lot with reigning champions Wasps, last season's semi-finalists Llanelli Scarlets and Clermont, the runners-up in the French championship.  It's a tough pool in which it's hard to see any obvious away wins for the men from the South.

But Leinster's pool is no picnic either featuring two of the heavyweights of European rugby in Leicester and Toulouse plus Edinburgh, Leinster's traditional bogie team.

Leicester Tigers

Strengths

Where to start?  They won the English league and cup double last season and only just missed out on a treble, losing in the Heineken Cup final.  A massive, cosmopolitan squad generated this success. Their big, tough pack is a combination of seasoned England internationals (Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, Ben Kay, Julian White & George Chuter) and Italian/Argentinean props (Martin Castrogiovanni, Marcus Ayersa & Alex Moreno).  They've also got plenty of young homegrown forward talent in the Deacon brothers, Tom Croft and Jordan Crane.

In the backs they can combine the pace and power of South Sea Island wingers Alesana Tuilagi and Seru Rabeni with the creativity of Geordan Murphy, Ollie Smith and Dan Hipkiss.  All-black centre Aaron Maugher will only add to this when he arrives and Tom Varnell remains one of the quickest players around, even if he had his setbacks in last year.

Weaknesses

Eh...well, there's nothing that you'd call a serious weakness as such but they would probably like to improve at half-back.  Harry Ellis was playing the best rugby of his career until he got a bad knee injury last May.  Former Munster player Frank Murphy stepped in and played quite well, but Leicester have since brought in former French internationalChristophe Laussucq as extra cover.

Fly-half probably remains a more pressing concern for them though.  They'd looked to have secured the services of Argentinean World Cup star Juan Martin Hernandez but the move broke down.  So they're left with the three options they had shuffled in and out last year: Andy Goode, Ian Humphries and Paul Burke.  Goode is generally a fine kicker but there remains a doubt about his fitness and big game temperament.  Humphries is the quickest of the three and looks an exciting talent but his place-kicking can be erratic.  Burke seems to have been playing since William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball, but his experience and place-kicking will still make him a valuable squad player.  However his defense has been a weakness in the last few years.  There's also the arrival of new coach Manual Loffreda.  While he is undoubtedly a fine coach, it could cause some uncertainty in the ranks and Leinster may be getting them at the right time.

Key man: Martin Corry

There are far flashier talents in the Tigers set-up but Corry is the captain who holds it all together.  A hard as nails but honest competitor, he's not everyone's idea of a perfect back-row, but generally when the Tigers are at their abrasive best he's the main man.

Stade Toulousain

Strengths

They still have a glut of brilliant French international backs in Cedric Heymans, Florian Fritz, Clément Poitreaud, Vincent Clerc, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Yannick Jauzion.  When you add All-Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher to that mix it's certainly a backline to be wary of.  In the pack they've plenty of backrow talent in Yannick Nyanga, Thierry Dusatoir, Jean Bouilhou and Finau Maka.  Captain Fabien Pelous may have announced his retirement from international rugby but he remains a fierce competitor at this level.  Argentinean internationals Omar Hasan and Patricio Albacete add further quality to the front five.

Weaknesses

The big question is "has it all got a little stale?"  These players have been together a long time and Guy Noves has been there even longer.  Last season they didn't manage to get out of their group in Europe and never looked like winning the French Championship.  After this under-achievement we might have expected a massive recruitment campaign, but it never really materialised.  Kelleher was signed but that was more opportunism as his move to Agen broke down due to their relegation.  South African back-row Shaun Sowerby was signed from Stade Francais but that was about it.

What's more, the enigmatic Freddy Michalak has left to play Super 14 with the Sharks in South Africa, which has left a major question mark over the fly-half position.  There was talk of signing Stephen Larkham but it didn't materialise and currently they're trying Elissalde at fly-half with Kelleher at scrum-half.  Apparently Elissalde isn't too happy playing there and it could prove to be a problem position, although they do have aging Springbok Gaffie du Toit as another option.  There's also the question of whether the heartbreak of the French World Cup campaign will leave a hangover.  One big plus for them though is the arrival of Leinster.  That team have never quite recovered from the famous semi-final defeat two seasons ago and they will not be short of motivation for revenge.

Key man: Yannick Jauzion

He didn't have the greatest World Cup, but he remains one of the world's best centres.  A huge, deceptively quick man, his running lines and soft hands can release the pace of the backline around him.  When he's in the mood he can cut teams to ribbons, while also providing a massive physical presence in defense.

Edinburgh Rugby

Strengths

It's hard to assess the "strengths" of Edinburgh as they are still recovering from as traumatic a summer as has been witnessed in the professional game.  The partnership between the ambitious Carruthers brothers and the staunchly archaic Scottish Rugby Football Union never looked like a match made in heaven.  However, even seasoned observers were surprised by the bitter acrimony that characterised the split when it all fell apart amid legal threats in the summer.  In the meantime most of the international players ran for the hills and coach Lynn Howells quit.  The high profile signing of Australian star Stephen Larkham also fell by the wayside.

Okay, this is meant to be the strengths section so what are they left with?  Well at least they have a new coach in Andy Robinson, though his record in charge of England won't exactly inspire huge confidence.  They still have some top-class Scottish internationals left in scrum-half Mike Blair, full-back Hugo Southwell and back-row Ali Hogg and decent props in Allan Jacobsen and Gavin Kerr.  They also seem to have some promising new talent coming through in fly-half David Blair (younger brother of Mike), wing Andrew Turnbull and hooker Ross Ford.

Weaknesses

Amid all the acrimony and uncertainty last summer, Scottish internationals Chris Paterson, Scott Murray, Marcus Di Rollo, Rob Dewey, Alasdair Strokosch and Simon Taylor all departed to other clubs in Europe.  This has left a gaping hole in a team that was hardly that successful to begin with.  Their financial difficulties left them unable to sign quality replacements so they'll have to survive this season with a team of mostly kids and journeymen.  One win and two draws from six Magners League games isn't the kind of start that would suggest a revival is imminent either.  Leinster will be targeting them for an away win, but how many times have they said this in the past and gotten burnt?  Last years' defeat in Murrayfield still rankles with the Leinster team and if they can't get revenge for that in December then they can forget any hopes of qualifying from the group.  Trips to Edinburgh can be tricky but overall it's hard to see Edinburgh as anything but the group's whipping boys.

Key man: Ali Hogg

Though only twenty-four, the captain has already established himself as a class act in the Scotland team, seemingly comfortable anywhere in the backrow.  He's going to find himself shipping a lot of water this season, but he has the character to hold things together is what will undoubtedly prove to be a tough season.

So it's a brute of a pool no doubt, but not impossible to get out of.  As with all these three sides, Leinster also have plenty of questions hanging over them.  However if Leinster can get their act together and get off to a good start then qualification is still attainable.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2007-11-08

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