Teams: Castres, Ulster, Northampton and Glasgow
Mark McCafferty Unfairness Rating: Totally legit. All teams finished in the top six in their leagues. So we can categorise this group as ‘elite’.
Preview: Elite indeed. It doesn’t get any more elite than Castres and Glasgow. Castres have established themselves as consistent top six material in France and are capable of beating good teams on their home ground, but are content to trot out the reserve team in European away games. They define French ambivalence to the H-Cup. Nonetheless, they can be a significant factor in that they could beat one of the big boys, but are unlikely to contest the group themselves.
The same applies to Glasgow, who have had a good start to the season. They’re third in the Pro12. They lack the sort of hard-bitten pack to get results on the road but could easily win all their home games.
Ultimately though, this looks like a shoot-out between Northampton and Ulster. Both teams are bubbling just below the established big boys and both are knocking very hard to make that breakthrough. Indeed, they’ve both been finalists in the last two years, only to be smashed by the Leinster juggernaut.
Northampton imploded last season in the face of a spirit-sapping last-dash defeat in Thomond Park (we think there was a drop goal or something, but we’re not quite sure). We have concerns over their mental fortitude: a stronger side would have recognised that while they lost the game, they were still well set for qualification. Similarly, the manner in which they lost control of Leinster in the 2011 final and failed to see out a winning position in last year’s Premiership semi-final against Harlequins suggests a team that doesn’t quite have the mental to be winners. They’ve plenty of strengths but they’re weak at half-back, where Dickson is an arm-waving, slow scrummie who can expect to hear the phrase ‘Use it!’ a lot and neither Myler nor Ryan Lamb are matchwinners. And with Ben Foden injured, they lack real attacking threat.
It leaves Ulster well positioned. This will be a tough season for the Ulstermen, who have to try to deal with the tragic loss of one of their number. However, they look the sort of tight-knit bunch, with a spine of great leaders that will be exceptionally determined to lay down something great in Nevin’s memory.
They also have the heavyweight pack and dominant set piece - the best defensive lineout in the tournament, perhaps – to go toe to toe with Northampton, and boast an impregnable home fortress where they just won’t lose. Coming out of on top of the head-to-head with Northampton looks to be the key to qualifying.
Verdict: Ulster to qualify. The fixtures are set up nicely for them, with Castres first and last. They should chalk up five points at home and if there’s ever a good time to have to visit one of the French middle tier it’s in the final week of the pool stages when they’re already out and minds are distracted by the Top Quatorze. With the benefit of last season’s experience, they Ulster can edge out Northampton over two legs and possibly even make a home quarter-final.