IT’S THAT TIME of year again. It’s dark, it’s cold and we’re all on the verge of getting slightly more miserable than usual.
Fortunately, the shimmering majesty of the Heineken Cup has come into view and will be at a rugby ground or SkyBox near you tonight.
To celebrate, we locked Sean Farrell, Niall Kelly, Murray Kinsella, Pat McCarry, Paul Fennessy and Steve O’Rourke into the airing cupboard and refused to let them out until they answered five simple questions*.
Here’s what they came up with.
What was your standout Heineken Cup memory from last season?
Paul Fennessy: Can I have two? Ulster going to Northampton and totally outclassing them on the night with a bonus-point victory. And Paul O’Connell coming back from a long layoff just at the right time to produce a magisterial performance against Harlequins. It didn’t get much better than that for the Irish sides, sadly.
Niall Kelly: Writing this, I’m realising just how much of last season’s competition I’ve forgotten — that’s not a slight on the quality of the games, more on the quality of my memory.
That said how could I forget Munster’s epic win over Harlequins at the Stoop. Paul O’Connell was a man possessed that day, another powerful reminder of how lucky we are to have him and how much we will miss him when he’s gone.
Murray Kinsella: Munster’s win against Harlequins is unforgettable for me. I simply didn’t expect the ferocity of what they delivered at The Stoop and it was a wonderful example of how important motivation remains in rugby. ‘Quins were the obvious favourites at home and having scored 28 tries in their six pool games, but Munster were just up for the physical battle and Conor O’Shea’s men looked stunned.
The lost semi-final against Clermont will also stick in the memory in what was a disappointing Heineken Cup season for the provinces overall.
Pat McCarry: I was at the Sportsground in Galway when Connacht beat Biarritz and denied them a losing bonus point. Vainikolo, McKeon and Faloon were class that evening and Parks played the smart game he is so capable of. Afterwards, [Connacht scrumhalf] Kieran Marmion told me he 14 when Biarritz were in their first Heineken Cup final in 2006 as I choked on my awe!
Also, the picture of Jonny Wilkinson giving a hand up to the tackled, and near defeated, Owen Farrell as Toulon’s old stager beat the Saracens upstart in the semis.
Sean Farrell: I was in a godless land with little rugby coverage when the quarter-finals were on last year, so I can only imagine how much more incredible it would have been to watch Munster take on Harlequins without knowing that Paul O’Connell was about to impose his will upon 29 other men.
That aside, there was humdinger of a pool game between Leinster and Clermont at the Aviva and Simon Zebo’s hat-trick against Racing Metro felt like a coronation, but the outstanding game for me remains the final.
Clermont were everybody’s favourite, but in a brutally physical contest they once again pulled up agonisingly close of the finish and Toulon were the ones given value for their massive investment in playing staff.
YouTube credit: TheUAFC
Steve O’Rourke: From an Irish point of view, it was probably Ulster travelling over to Franklin’s Gardens and getting a bonus point win. This was, of course, a Saints side who would go on to reach the Premiership final so it was some performance.
How will the Irish provinces fare?
MK: Munster have the easiest pool of them all, and I’d be surprised if they don’t top it. Realistically, they should be focusing on getting a home quarter-final. Leinster’s pool looks the toughest but I think they could scrape through for an away final after losing two games. Ulster to top their pool but only if Montpellier lose interest after December, and Connacht to win two or three times, including a home win against Toulouse.
SOR: There have been a couple of times over the past few weeks I’ve gone through the fixtures, crunched the numbers and ended up with no Irish province emerging from the group stages. I’d like to believe that some of the French clubs — Montpellier in particular — will keep their focus on the Top 14 so Ulster and Munster should make the quarters. Sadly, I don’t think Leinster or Connacht will.
PMcC: Munster and Leinster will qualify from their pools while Ulster should get through to the last eight, too, if they start off with a home win over Leicester Tigers. Pienaar’s contract extension shows Ulster’s players that they are serious about being genuine, regular cup challengers. Connacht will do well to equal last year’s total of three wins and may throw the kitchen sink at Toulouse to do so. Munster to go furthest.
PF: Very difficult to say, as a lot will depend on how injury-free each side remains. I’m going to optimistically suggest that Leinster, Munster and Ulster will make it past the group stages at least, though I anticipate another noble Connacht failure at best, sadly.
The Rabo can be a notoriously unreliable measure of a team’s ultimate worth, but that said, Munster have looked the most impressive of the Irish sides so far this season, so they seem best placed to challenge for silverware. Unfortunately though, my inner pessimist suspects the trophy will be staying in France this year. Toulon, in particular, look strong and have the talent to do a Leinster and win it for a second year on the trot.
NK: The gods of the draw have not been kind to the Irish provinces and we could be facing into an unusually bleak European campaign.
Mark Munster down as the best chance of topping their pool and getting the all-important home advantage in the knockout rounds. I fancy Ulster and Leinster to give it a real go as well but the last eight could be as good as it gets. Connacht will be measuring success by a different standard.
SF: Munster are our form province at the minute and on the face of things they have the handiest pool to navigate through. After an initial plunge, Rob Penney has reigned in the new Munster style expertly and with a home quarter-final, anything is possible.
Nobody expects more than two wins and four brave defeats from Connacht, but while Saracens are primed to avoid embarrassment in Galway, Toulouse just might be ripe for a scaring when they come back for an evening kick-off in mid-December.
Ulster and Leinster will have a job to get out of their groups, but if this competition has taught us anything it’s that league form counts for frig all in comparison to European experience.
A win tonight in Ravenhill is an absolute must for Ulster. And you fancy when the chips are down in game five and six of the pool Leinster will swash-buckle their way to a quarter-final berth too, though both will likely have to travel.
One Irish player to keep an eye on this year…
PMcC: Jared Payne is not Irish-qualified [yet] so I’ll go for Munster’s Andrew Conway. This young lad has an eye for the tryline and it will be great to see Munster embrace the attacking talents of Zebo, Jones, Conway and Earls with their dual deadbolts [Laulala and Downey] punching holes.
SF: He’s only around a year and already Robbie Henshaw is thought of as an old hand. Last season, Connacht’s great hope spent most of his time at fullback, with Gavin Duffy back to full fitness though, Henshaw will operated at the highest level in his favoured position of outside centre… we hear there’s a vacancy opening up in that position soon enough too.
MK: Iain Henderson of Ulster. I know he’s on the bench for the Leicester match tonight, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t have an impact off the bench. I can see him breaking into the first team in the short-term and really announcing himself to the rest of Europe. A player of phenomenal potential, I genuinely believe he has the ability to become Ireland’s next great second row (or blindside flanker).
PF: Andrew Conway. Leinster might well curse the day they let him slip through the net if he can fulfill his obvious potential at Munster.
SOR: Niall Morris with Leicester. As Murray wrote earlier this week, Geordan Murphy made himself a legend at Welford Road and Morris has all the tools to do the same. If he has a good tournament, a regular place in the Irish set-up surely beckons.
NK: With Sexton gone, this could finally be the year that Ian Madigan finally makes a name for himself on Europe’s biggest stage.
Who will be the star of this year’s competition?
NK: If Clermont go as far as I expect, it will be because Napolioni Nalaga is bulldozing his way to the try-line. Expect to see George North feature prominently in a lot of the end-of-season highlight reels too.
SOR: Jonathan Pelissie. With the huge caveat that he’ll only be a telling factor if Montpellier actually take the competition as seriously as they do the Top 14. He is, after all, the man who scored 31 or Montpellier’s 43 points as they walloped Clermont just a few weeks back.
YouTube credit: momentsovales
MK: Jonathan Pélissié of Montpellier. The scrum-half has been exceptional at times in the opening months of the Top 14 and has all the skills to make himself a star in Europe. Crucially, he has the confidence of a man who knows he is set for great things. His feisty temperament makes him great to watch and he looks set to become a household name.
SF: If Racing manage to steer past ‘Quins and Clermont it will be Jonathan Sexton again. If not, then we expect to be seeing a lot of Toulon. So Bryan Habana is the obvious choice there.
PMcC: Rene Ranger is on his way to Montpellier and should be around for action in time for the December rounds onward. The All Blacks star is a one-man highlight reel.
YouTube credit: The Blues
PF: Again, going by my theory that the outcome will be highly reminiscent of last year, I’m picking Toulon’s Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, who is at the peak of his career currently. Wesley Fofana will surely make a big impact again too.
What team will be lifting the Cup in Cardiff next May?
SOR: Toulouse. They should come through their group relatively fresh and will kick on from there.
PMcC: I’m going to go with Toulon to double their pleasure as they have only gone and added to a team that dominated on their way to the final and did a number on shaky Clermont at Lansdowne Road. Wilkinson has rested up rather than touring with the Lions and, like Lethal Weapon’s Riggs & Murtagh, is ready to roll one last time!
NK: Clermont for me, please.
PF: One of the French sides — most likely Toulon or Clermont.
SF: With the Springbok try-machine added to Toulon’s squad and the prospect of an easy 10 points on offer from Cardiff Blues, we could be in for another back-to-back champion.
That’s if the French care about the competition.
MK: I’ll go for Clermont with this one, more because I want to see them do it than because I’m confident they will. They still have an incredible squad, and if they can muster the mental strength to give it one last go, they are easily good enough to win it. Dark horses are Montpellier depending on whether they focus on the Top 14.
*No sportswriters were harmed in the making of this article.