With the 2013-2014 Heineken Cup kicking off on Friday, we preview all the European sides participating, ending with those in Pools 4-6.
With the Heineken Cup kicking off on Friday, we preview all of the sides participating. Here are Pools 4-6.
Two of these three groups are going to be extremely difficult to get out of, with Clermont, Harlequins, Racing MÃ©tro, Leicester, Ulster and Montpellier all very much in the mix to top their respective quartet by mid-January next year.
Pool Six sees Munster and Perpignan as the two bookmakers' favourites, due largely to Gloucester and Edinburgh's poor league form, and we see the Irish side progressing with few problems.
So without further ado, here are the previews.
Pool Four: Clermont, Harlequins, Racing MÃ©tro, Scarlets
Clermont are Pool favourites and rightly so. Last season's finalists are in one of the hardest groups as Harlequins and fellow big spenders Racing are joined by the Scarlets. However, they should have too much fire-power and fluidity for that trio, with the likes of Wesley Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga set to carve through defences en route to tries. Factor in their 64-game unbeaten run at the Marcel Michelin and they are contenders for the title.
Harlequins meanwhile haven't had the best start so far this season. Three defeats out of five – the latest coming at London Irish – leaves them sitting in seventh position. Europe might come at the right time though, as they host fellow strugglers the Scarlets at the Stoop first up. Of course their visits to Paris and Clermont Ferrand are going to be difficult but with Danny Care, Nick Evans and Chris Robshaw leading, they will be in the mix for qualification.
Racing are in some ways like Quins in terms of not having been enjoying their opening league games, as new faces have yet to ignite what's an impressive squad. Jonathan Sexton, Brian Mujati, Soane Tonga'uiha and Dan Lydiate have all featured while Jamie Roberts is on the treatment table but it hasn't clicked just yet. Maybe the return of Pumas duo Juan Imhoff and Juan MartÃn HernÃ¡ndez will bring the spark they've been missing?
And finally, Pool underdogs the Scarlets boast Jonathan Davies, Rhys Priestland and John Barclay in their team but will surely not have enough quality to trouble these three outfits in the battle for a last eight spot. It promises to be a tough campaign for the Welsh region.
One to watch: Wesley Fofana (Clermont)
Sexton and Care are livewires who can turn a game at any time but Fofana has been a cut above for two years now. His deceptive speed and angles make him one of rugby's hottest properties so keep an eye on how he goes. Fofana also likes a try so teams must be wary.
Prediction: For us it's Clermont, with Racing and Quins fighting it out for second place. However, in such a difficult group – where teams may take points off each other on regular occasions – it will be tough for either side to claim one of the two best runner-up spots.
Pool 5: Leicester, Montpellier, Treviso, Ulster
Much like Pool Four this quartet are set for some epic clashes. The bookmakers have Leicester Tigers slight favourites ahead of Ulster while Montpellier are further behind. We feel that assessment could be off the mark as the French side are a new contender in town.
Fabien GalthiÃ©'s side are coming together very nicely indeed and with Robert Ebersohn and Rene Ranger set to register with the squad once they're done down south, they should go from strength to strength (of course Juan Figallo's absence is a blow). Montpellier are currently joint first in the Top 14 and open their European campaign at Benetton Treviso.
Ulster have slipped under the radar somewhat in the build-up after being spoken of highly in recent years. They shouldn't be written off as they still possess real quality throughout, as a solid tight five will soon been bolstered by Stephen Ferris' return to flank alongside Nick Williams and Chris Henry. Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne are class acts so they along with Leicester Tigers and of course Montpellier will fancy their chances.
Leicester meanwhile will, as usual, will definitely be in the Pool mix. Ben Youngs and Toby Flood are key cogs while Vereniki Goneva, Jordan Crane and Marcos Ayerza are also vital to their hopes. Winning at the Stade Yves du Manoir and Ravenhill is a daunting proposition, so Welford Road must be a fortress if the Tigers are to progress. Expect some epic games.
However, the aforementioned trio would be fools to write off Treviso, especially when going to Stadio Monigo, as the Italians can ruffle feathers when they put their mind to it – Munster will tell you all about that. Robert Barbieri and Ludovico Nitoglia are their key threats.
One to watch: Jonathan PÃ©lissiÃ© (Montpellier)
It was going to be Rene Ranger but due to ITM Cup commitments and possibly needing a rest after a long season, he has been left out of Montpellier's squad, for now at least. Leicester will hope Youngs and Flood hit top form while Ulster have Ruan Pienaar. But we go for the in-form scrum-half PÃ©lissiÃ©, who has been starring for Montpellier this season.
Prediction: The loss of Manu Tuilagi will hurt Leicester, as will Tom Croft's absence, which is why we do not go for them. Ulster meanwhile do have the quality to get out of this group but are yet to recapture their form that we saw at Franklin's Gardens late last year. Net result, we gamble on Montpellier who have grit up front and real class in behind.
Pool Six: Edinburgh, Gloucester, Munster, Perpignan
It seems Munster and Perpignan are the two lone challengers for this group, as Edinburgh and Gloucester have won three out of their ten combined games so far this season. The Scottish and England sides are struggling to fire in 2013/14 but begin their European campaign with a fixture on home soil, against Munster and Perpignan respectively, so a triumph there would give them massive confidence of a turnaround in their fortunes.
Munster are favourites to top the Pool and rightly so as they have a strong pack that is led by Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony, while CJ Stander is one player to watch out for. Behind that there's the running power of James Downey and Casey Laulala, while new signing Gerhard van den Heever should flourish when registered. Ian Keatley looks set to be fly-half in the absence of Ronan O'Gara so much rests on his shoulders – but we feel he is up to it.
Perpignan are probably next in line as James Hook, Camille Lopez and Guilhem Guirado are their key men. Facing his former club will be Lifeimi Mafi. Despite their fairly solid start to the season, we feel Perpignan will struggle on the road, which will ultimately cost them.
Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons hasn't been afraid to add to his squad in the early-season as Cornell du Preez, Sam Beard, Mike Coman, Tomas Leonardi, James Hilterbrand, Ollie Atkins and Grayson Hart have joined the Murrayfield outfit in an attempt to