Heineken Cup Preview: Pools 1-3

Date published: October 9 2013

With the 2013-2014 Heineken Cup kicking off on Friday, we preview all the European sides participating, starting with those in Pools 1-3.

With the 2013-2014 Heineken Cup kicking off on Friday, we preview all of the sides participating, starting with those in Pools 1-3.

Champions Toulon will be wary of Glasgow in Pool Two as they look to win their second consecutive Heineken Cup title after defeating Clermont in Dublin last season.

Pool One features four sides packed full of talent, including three-time champions Leinster and a powerful looking Northampton Saints outfit, along with Top 14 champions Castres.

As for Pool Three, Toulouse and Saracens appear set to do battle for that top spot – with both teams facing off at Wembley Stadium on Friday, October 18.

Here's a closer look at how the first 12 teams will fare in this year's competition.

Pool One: Leinster, Northampton, Ospreys, Castres

Following the impressive feat of three Heineken Cup titles in four years, Leinster struggled in last season's pools and missed the play-offs. Challenge Cup success softened the blow slightly, but Brian O'Driscoll's men will want to capture the big prize once more in their talisman's final season.

Northampton have recruited big with George North, Kahn Fotuali'i and Alex Corbisiero arriving as they look to go one better than their 2011 Final appearance. A good start to the Premiership season shows this team can win silverware, but they have to be more consistent.

The Ospreys have four British and Irish Lions in their pack that were involved in the final Test against Australia, and they will need all of their experience to be competitive. Dan Biggar continues to improve at fly-half but the onus will be on the Welsh side's backs to score enough tries.

Finally, Castres might be champions of France but their start to the Top 14 this season has been abysmal – losing 34-0 to Brive last weekend. They do, for now, possess Rory Kockott in their ranks at scrum-half and the South African can win them matches with his boot. The key will be how their talented squad fare on the road away from home.

One to Watch: George North (Northampton Saints)

Kockott, Sean O'Brien and Justin Tipuric are all big players in this pool, but the Welsh monster is impossible to ignore. Having made a good start to his Saints career, North could flourish in Europe.

Prediction: Castres will be tough at home and Leinster's squad is packed full of experience in Europe (making them our pick for one of the runner-up spots), but Northampton showed by drawing at Welford Road that they can pick up the important results home and away.

Pool Two: Toulon, Cardiff Blues, Glasgow, Exeter

Champions last year, Toulon didn't exactly weaken their squad during the off-season with the recruitment of Ali Williams, Drew Mitchell, Martin Castrogiovanni and Bryan Habana. Jonny Wilkinson remains at fly-half and it would be no surprise to see Toulon win back-to-back titles given the quality in their mammoth squad. The only distraction might be the lure of winning what is proving to be an elusive Top 14 championship after two losses in the final over the last two seasons.

The Blues have welcomed back a favoured son from Toulon in Gethin Jenkins, but they also have quality elsewhere. Leigh Halfpenny was the star of the Lions series in Australia and has the boot to win tight matches, with Sam Warburton providing the inspiration up front. Alex Cuthbert should not be forgotten about out wide either. While two wins from their opening five games in the RaboDirect Pro12 however is not the most encouraging form, they are improving.

Glasgow are a dark horse. The Pro12 leaders look in fine touch so far this season after five wins from five matches. They could not ask for a tougher start away to Toulon but once that is out of the way, all five of their remaining matches are winnable. The key will be how their tight five fare but Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland are both real threats in the back-three. Expect them to contend for a best runner-up spot.

Finally, Exeter Chiefs were oddly flat against Leicester at home two weeks ago before smashing expectations by winning away at Gloucester. In that fixture their pack were utterly dominant, so if Dean Mumm's men can win that physical battle then the Chiefs will cause some upsets.

One to Watch: Bryan Habana (Toulon)

Two years ago, Habana appeared to have lost his magic somewhat as he laboured through an uninspiring season. With his double against New Zealand at Ellis Park though the great man confirmed that he is back to his very best – arriving in Toulon with 92 caps and 53 Test tries to his name. Europe is lucky to have him.

Prediction: Champions Toulon will certainly find themselves in the knockout stages once more, but look out for Glasgow, who may challenge for a runners-up spot but just miss out due to other weaker pools.

Pool Three: Toulouse, Saracens, Connacht, Zebre

Tied at the peak of the Top 14 with Montpellier and Toulon after nine rounds, Toulouse look in good shape. The four-time Heineken Cup champions will be threatened by Saracens at home but have too much quality to be truly worried about Connacht and Zebre. Toulouse also have the best defence in France so far this season. Look out for new recruit Hosea Gear.

Saracens reached the semi-finals of last season's competition on the back of some great work from their pack and the boot of Owen Farrell. This season they have opened up their game and sit top of the Premiership after five rounds with three try bonus-points to their name and have scored the most points with 158, considerably more than the next best side with 127. Not bad going for a side who are criticised for being too conservative. Their defence has also conceded the fewest points in the league so far – 73.

Connacht have only picked up one win from their first five matches in the Pro12 and look set to struggle this season more than in previous years. Last season saw the Irish outfit win three times in the group stages, including success against Biarritz at home, but repeating that record with Toulouse and Saracens in the pool is unlikely.

Finally, Italian outfit Zebre celebrated their first win in the Pro12 this season against Cardiff Blues but success in Europe seems out of the question. Connacht defeated them home and away last year in the pool stages and although they have talent in their ranks such as the promising Luca Morisi, their inclusion underlines why the qualification process for the Heineken Cup has caused such outrage.

One to Watch: Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

After spending his breakthrough season with London Wasps in the Challenge Cup, Vunipola is set for his first taste of Heineken Cup action. The dynamic back-rower is enjoying life with his new club and should be involved with England in November, making the challenge of facing Toulouse at Wembley a perfect warm-up.

Prediction: Both Toulouse and Saracens