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The Heineken Cup returns, it’s the rugby’s turn to do the talking

The Heineken Cup returns this week, battered and bruised maybe after a summer of turmoil, but ready to show us once again why it is the greatest club competition in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Heineken Cup has been in chaos lately with the current European Rugby Cup deal expiring in 2013 and the English and French clubs are demanding a change to the format in 2014 or they will quit the competition.

In addition Premiership Rugby then went and negotiated its own TV deal, including the right to European games, in contrast to ERC’s own TV deal. The two sides have been in Rome trying to broker a deal but talks have once again broken down.

It is with some relief then that the rugby finally becomes the focus of attention again. We can finally get down to the business of enjoying this testing, intense and enthralling tournament.

Unlike its football counterpart, the Champions League, the Heineken Cup is competitive from the very start with only the pool winners plus the top two second placed teams qualifying for the quarter finals.

This format means that some of the very best sides in Europe will be left behind after the pool stages, creating fierce competition in every game. We analyse each pool and predict those who will emerge for the knockouts:

Pool One:

Munster, Edinburgh, Saracens, Racing Metro

Two time champions and Heineken Cup legends, Munster are the favourites for this pool. Their experience in getting through tough pools will be invaluable, as they showed against Northampton last season, they have the patience and ability to win any game.

Edinburgh will be determined to push them hard though after reaching the semi’s last year, where a memorable 48-47 victory over Racing Metro in the pool stages helped them on their way. The French side will be eager to reverse their fortunes from last year though, and with a stronger and more experienced squad they ought to do better.

Saracens, it seems, have yet to produce their best in Europe, but with their low risk game plan, they are perhaps suited to knockout rugby better than most. 

Munster to win.

Pool Two:

Toulouse, Leicester, Ospreys, Treviso

Once again the Italians look to be up against it in this group with two of the European greats, Toulouse and Leicester, to face.  Perennial Heineken underachievers, the Ospreys, will be against it too, but will know that within their squad they possess the talent to go far in this tournament if they could only build their consistency.

Toulouse and Leicester look set to battle for the top places, and their head to heads ought to be some of the most intense clashes of these pool stages. The strength of their respective front rows in far in excess of that of most other sides, while the depth of their squads is also hard to match.

The greater variety to the Toulouse game and better recent European form ought to see them through though. 

Toulouse to win.

Pool Three:

Harlequins, Biarritz, Connacht, Zebre

Probably the weakest group in the competition, this is likely to be a clash between Harlequins and Biarritz for the top spot. Though neither should underestimate how tough their away trips to Connacht will be.

 It will be an interesting duel at between the English champions and the Basque side. Biarritz have been horribly inconsistent in the Top 14 but have outstanding European pedigree, while Harlequins have yet to shine on the European stage despite their excellent domestic season last year.

With the quality of Nick Evans though and the leadership of Chris Robshaw, Harlequins have the quality to top this group, and if they can win against Connacht and Zebre home and away, then they can possibly even top the group with just one win against Biarritz. 

Harlequins to win with Biarritz qualifying.

Pool Four:

Ulster, Castres, Northampton, Glasgow

An unpredictable group this one, with four sides capable of beating anyone on their day. In Ulster and Northampton there are the finalists from the last two editions of the tournament, and it is from this pair that the group winner is likely to come.

Castres and Glasgow will steal a few results though, and it will probably be how these to fare at home against Ulster and Saints that will determine the group.

Ulster should have enough strength to prevail though, and if they can continue to build as they did last season then they could go far again. 

Ulster to win.

Pool Five:

Leinster, Clermont, Scarlets, Exeter

What a pool this is, with the 2009, 2011 and 2012 champions Leinster looking like the favourites to qualify. Do not be fooled though, this will be no easy ride for them, Clermont are one of the toughest sides in the competition and will be out for revenge after narrowly losing out to Leinster in last years semi final.

The Scarlets and Exeter will be no pushovers either with the Scarlets bright young side starting to look like the big emerging threat from Wales over the next few years.

Exeter meanwhile are in their first Heineken Cup, but much like their first Premiership season, underestimate them at your peril. Exeter have shown an enormous capacity to perform beyond themselves in over the last couple of years and it would be no surprise to see them produce a few victories against the odds here.

Leinster to win with Clermont qualifying.

Pool Six:

Toulon, Montpellier, Cardiff, Sale

A group with the capacity to entertain and delight, pool six will be fought ought right to the bitter end. Toulon will start as favourites after their improved season last year as their star players finally began to gel.

Montpellier are a tough and dogged traditionally French side who will be very hard to beat at home, while Cardiff are out to finally prove themselves in the competition. The exodus of their players to France though, and the inconsistencies in their play will hamper them but on their day they can beat any side in the competition.

Sale meanwhile possess the players to be a real threat, but after six defeats from six in the Aviva Premiership, it is hard to see them getting too many results here. They have the capacity though to spring a few surprises.

Toulon to win.

There we have it, and if the pools end as we have predicted, we are likely to see four sides from the Top 14 in the quarter finals with 3 Irish sides and a Premiership side.  The likelihood is though that there will be a fair few twists and turns over the next six rounds of matches, perhaps this will finally be the year an Italian side qualifies? Or the year a Scottish or Welsh side wins it?

History would suggest not, but then the Heineken Cup is a tournament like no other.

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