It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits down in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to give us his calls. Brace yourself for the Heineken Cup.
Our man with the crystal ball has been hard at work once again to bring you the best bets from the groups and also the tournament outright.
Remember you can contact Russ with all your comments and questions on Twitter - @rpetty80.
The bookies are having trouble splitting Munster and Saracens, with both sides available at around 2.75. I've backed the Irish though as they have an incredible record at home in the competition (44/48 pool stage home wins) and despite being written off last season, they topped their pool with 6 wins. Rob Penney led Canterbury to success in the ITM Cup before taking over the reins. Whilst you would expect a period of transition at the side and there are question marks over the domestic away form and up front, it's also the case that there is a culture of winning on this stage at the club and they also possess very good head-to-head records against their rivals. Watch out when CJ Stander joins the squad after round 3 too, as he could prove a very lucrative anytime try-scorer. Saracens should push Munster close and showed against Quins that they have the ability to shut down an offloading outfit, which may threaten Edinburgh's chances. There are a few reasons that prevent me backing them though, they are more than adept at slowing a game down and playing their efficient brand but I'm not sure they are capable of try bonus-points which could be critical. Based on recent Heineken Cup performances, the 7.0 for Racing Metro and 13.0 for Edinburgh to top the pool could possibly be swapped. The French side have lost 9/12 games in the competition and 5/6 at home and have suffered a number of injuries at fly-half which resulted in Olly Barkley being signed. They will be bolstered by their returning Los Pumas players but sitting mid-table in the Top 14, it may be that their full attention isn't given to the tournament. They are the third lowest scorers and have second best defence in the league at moment, with 5 scored and 9 conceded so their games against Saracens could prove to be low scoring. Edinburgh reached the semis last year so may feel insulted by such a big price. They are equipped with a solid back-row, Greig Laidlaw directing and the 'anytime try-scorer' banker Tim Visser but will have lost the element of surprise and may become stifled by their rivals.
Toulouse are as short as 1.66 to win this pool with a best price of 1.91. They have a great Heineken Cup pedigree and are right up there in the points scoring department so far in the Top 14, but I am taking them on this season. When a team has reached the quarter-final stage 13 times and attended 6 finals, it's always a highly risky proposition to write them off - however there was a sense last season that there were cracks in a once invincible armour and with 5 wins in their last 10 games at this level, the short price doesn't represent value. Leicester are another outfit with huge experience and I really like the look of the 3.25 for them to top Pool 2. It's true they have just 5 wins from 19 away games and were given a mauling by Ulster last year, however they have recruited well and have huge strength in depth in all positions. I think there will be a big push to improve upon the failures of recent seasons and that price appeals. After a home draw and 2 away losses to the Ospreys, as well as that 2010 "16th man" farce, they will be eager to prove a point to the Welsh and if you disagree with them topping the pool then perhaps the 2.2 to reach the last-eight suits instead. Ospreys are rated at 6.5 and that price looks a lot better after 3 league wins turned a slow start around. They have lost a number of key players (Shane Williams, Tommy Bowe etc) but have a great talent in Justin Tipuric and showed their tough edge when they bullied the Scarlets recently. Saracens interrupted a run of 17 unbeaten home games in the competition last season but away form could be a problem with just 1 win from 15 attempts. Treviso may prove a useful team to back with a handicap on their own turf but the Italians have lost the last 13 away games in European competition. Treviso go into the tournament buoyed by consecutive domestic wins in the RaboDirect PRO12 and I'll be keeping my eye on the any-time scorer price for powerful number eight Roberto Barbieri, who can finish.
This is another group where the betting firms have put up joint favourites with Harlequins at 1.91 and Biarritz at 2.1. I backed the English champions when the groups were announced and am still happy with that selection. Biarritz have lost their last 4 games in the Top 14 and have dropped from scoring 27 points a game to just an average of 12. Even if they were in good form, without that Harinordoquy / Yachvili axis, I'd find it difficult to support them in European competition. Quins showed both sides to their character last season with an away victory at Toulouse and a 1-point defeat at Connacht that cost them qualification. They have lost to Saracens and Exeter recently in the league, however Conor O'Shea and his staff showed last season they are capable of learning and adapting quickly from defeat. In their second season of Heineken Cup action, Connacht can be backed at 81.0 for Pool 3. They will be sick of the sight of Quins having played them regularly in recent seasons and even in a friendly in August, which was arranged before the pools were allocated. They are being heavily written off by pundits and bookies alike which may motivate them and capable of beating either of the favourites on their own patch. The 31.0 for them to reach the quarter-finals may see some action in Galway. Zebre are a massive 501.0 to top the pool. If you are looking for a betting equivalent - it's the same price for Italy to win the next RWC. Having lost their opening 5 PRO12 games they look by far the weakest side. Everything points to them being used (rightly or wrongly) as examples of what is wrong with the qualification set up.
Pool 4 previewSaints have gone back to the power game that took them to the final in 2010/11 and have managed at the same time to upgrade the backline with the Pisis', James Wilson and Luther Burrell all showing early form. They'll be without Ben Foden for a while with injury though and have lost the finishing of Chris Ashton. I can understand why they would be popular at 2.38, especially with a strong start to the season, but much like with Toulouse, I am going to be opposing this pool favourite. I don't like backing them in the 'big' games as they have a history of just falling short (5 Premiership semi-final defeats, that Leinster comeback in the 2011 final) and their fly-half conundrum needs resolving. Instead, it will be Ulster that get the nod here. They too have felt the force of Leinster in a final but have improved the squad since then and the 2.6 looks a decent price. The introduction of Tommy Bowe, a fit again Jared Payne, Nick Williams and Roger Wilson alongside established stars like John Afoa and Stephen Ferris make them a formidable outfit and they go into the competition with 5 wins from 5 games in the PRO12. Castres are 8.0 shots and I don't like their chances on the road at any of the other sides based on a record of 1 win from 17 away games. They have won all their home games in the Top 14 this season but have only 1 win from 4 home games in this tournament and the loss of Chris Masoe will be felt. Glasgow are rated as big as 17.0 for the pool and 9.0 to reach the latter stages. They finished 4th in PRO12 last season and 2nd in their HEC pool. Chris Cusiter is injured and they have lost Johnnie Beattie and Richie Gray but brought in Josh Strauss and Angus Macdonald, with both men possessing leadership skills. The key change may be in the coaching box, with Gregor Townsend replacing Sean Lineen. They have won their last 4 games and have the second tightest defence in their league, so those prices might seem too big for their fans.
Each season I look at Les Jaunards' squad and think that they look a great call for the whole tournament and seemingly each year a combination of poor away form (except against Saracens and Italian teams in recent seasons) and running into Leinster derails their bid. At 2.62 to win the pool, I almost succumbed again but it's time to turn my back on Clermont, even with that intimidating home record and powerful squad. Leinster have won the trophy in 3 of the last 4 years so it's no surprise to see them established as top dogs in Pool 5. They have won 14 of their last 18 group stage games and have a superior win record against both Clermont and the Scarlets. As usual when they're up against Clermont I think their price is a bit short and the French side's slightly big - but the 1.73 will prove popular and it's time I started trusted the Irish side with my cash. Scarlets at 26.0 and Exeter at 81.0 (and 9.5 & 26.0 to reach the quarter finals) make up the "window-dressing" to quote one pundit, but are dangerous foes. The Scarlets have an exciting backline with Rhys Priestland, George North, Jon Davies and co but questions remain whether they can 'tough out' close games. Ospreys bullied them up front and they squandered a lead against Treviso in the PRO12 but with some South African imports and young front-rowers like Samson Lee coming through, that issue may be fixed. The Chiefs have risen to most challenges they have faced, and this is the next step. There were worrying signs in their game against Leicester Tigers but they responded with a thumping win over Harlequins. Their close-knit team, ability to score late tries and pick up losing bonus-points, should serve them well but the main fear is how they will juggle the demands of the Aviva Premiership and their first big European foray.
On the face of it, the easiest pool from which to pick a winner. Toulon started off as generous 2.1 favourites and are now as low as 1.36 after winning 7 of 8 games in the Top 14, with the only loss being away to Toulouse with a rested side. They have already won 5 away games which is no mean feat in the Top 14 and is a good sign that the star-studded outfit have strong team unity. I'm expecting Andrew Sheridan and Gethin Jenkins to help grind out results against their old teams at scrum time and with a squad littered with big names, they will be heavily backed to lift the trophy. Montpeillier and Cardiff Blues are both available at 7.0. The French offered tough resistance last year but only picked up 1 win. They have top class talent in the back-row and the 5.5 to reach the quarter-finals is worth consideration. The Blues have lost a number of players and already have lost 3 of their 4 home games in the PRO12. A perceived weakness in the scrum and up front has been downplayed, but we will see if it exists against the French sides. Sale are 23.0 for the pool - the Sharks have lost their last 6 Premiership games and 9 of the last 11. With 2 away victories in their last 12 league games I do not see them threatening on the road, while they are yet to win at their new stadium. There's always that remote chance that they use the tournament as a fresh start or that the possible bad cop / worse cop combination of Steve Diamond and John Mitchell ignite the forward pack but I will be avoiding them this season.
Munster, Leicester, Harlequins, Ulster, Leinster, Toulon = 96/1 with Sky Bet
If you look at who the bookies are favouring, unsurprisingly it's the teams they have decided are most likely to top their pools and they can afford to offer those sides at relatively short odds. An example would be Leinster at 5.0 or Toulon at 8.0. It also means the teams they haven't deemed pool favourites have to be given a far more generous price and be it a desire to look for value or just good old-fashioned greed, that's where I'm headed. In the history of the tournament, only 14 teams have reached a final. Of those teams, 8 are present this year. If you delve deeper, then 18/34 possible finalists have been Munster, Leinster, Toulouse or Leicester with only the 1998 and 1999 finals not featuring at least one of those sides. That quartet have also won the cup, 11 times between them. With that in mind, it's no shock that 10 of the last 12 winners have reached a final before. I do like Leicester's big price of 19.0, however with Toulouse in their pool I am expecting some resistance to that idea. Instead, let's look across the Irish Sea, where 5 of the last 7 teams have heralded from. It's 3.2 for that to happen again, but one team stands out on price. There has only been one losing finalist that reached a final the next year (Toulouse in 2004/5) and a team placed in Pool 4 has never gone the distance, but I'm a big fan of Ulster at 29.0. It looks like I'm not alone, with the price dropping daily. Boasting a great record at home, they go into the competition in excellent form and have strengthened from last year. Along with the ability to take teams on up front, the current PRO12 league leaders can call upon a mean defence and crucially have a backline that can trouble defences. All aboard the Ulster bandwagon!