It's a competition on the up. The Zurich Premiership is the toughest season-long tournament but, as a `block` event the Heineken Cup is one step higher and is the cup everyone wants to play in.
For many players it is the only time in their careers that they get to face internationals based in other countries. It's a great opportunity to `blood` up-and-coming stars to see just how good they can be.
This season the final is being played at Murrayfield, a sign of the growing stature of the tournament. Up to now the climax has been played in France, England, Wales and Ireland - all countries where home teams had a genuine chance of reaching the final.
No Scottish side had progressed to the knockout stages until Edinburgh reached the quarter-finals last season, but I believe you have to push it around the nations and it certainly gives Edinburgh and Glasgow even more to aspire to.
The `pit of pain` as I call it. Only one goes through automatically, possibly two, and we have three of the leading contenders thrown together. Calvisano will make up the numbers, I'm afraid. They can score tries but have little big-time experience compared to the big guns. Biarritz are lying third in the French Championship, have got a superb back row of Thomas Lievremont, Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy within a mighty pack and have try machine Jimmy Marlu out wide Wasps have to beat them at Wycombe as in this group, more than any other, home games are so important.
Leicester want to get back to former glories, but I back Wasps to go through from this amazing section, They have done well under difficult circumstances in the Premiership with a lengthy injury list. We should all have learned from last season that you can never write off Wasps.
Treviso will fly the flag for Italy, but the only way they are going to progress is by wining all their home games, which looks highly unlikely. Leinster have not been going well in the Celtic League but have all their stars back after their enforced rest by the Irish Rugby Union and I back them to come through this pool. The lethal midfield combination of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy are set to wreak havoc. Bath look one-dimensional, having hinted against Leicester that they might be finding some fluency behind their big pack, and Bourgoin do not travel well.
Toulouse are the bookies' favourites and have been on top form in the French Championship. There is a plethora of talent there, with new Wales captain Gareth Thomas the latest to join the crew. It will be interesting to see how he is received at Stradey Park. Llanelli have struggled this season, and it's legitimate to ask if we are seeing the end of an era of success for the Scarlets? Stephen Jones' departure to France appears to have really hurt them, he may not be a fly-half in the Barry John or Phil Bennett mould but he is a kicking machine, similar to Paul Grayson. Llanelli have lacked that final cutting edge in recent seasons and would appear to be waning.
Glasgow are trying to build something in the west of Scotland and will provide a tricky test at Hughenden for all comers. It will be particularly difficult for a Northampton side who have, frankly, been playing rubbish in the lead-up to European action. The southern hemisphere players coach Alan Solomons has brought in are not doing the job and I just failed to understand why Bruce Reihana, Saints' moist effective attacking back, was chosen at fly-half recently.
Saints fans can only hope that free from the hassle of Premiership rugby the team can liberate themselves and go for it in Europe, as they did in 1999/2000.
Munster in Limerick will be a good outing for Harlequins fans, but not for their players. The team is struggling and new recruits Simon Maling and Geo Cronje are not available for the Heineken Cup. Quins have got to go out and play but I just can't see them coming out of this tough group. Christian Cullen is back on form and he could be the difference. That's why Munster are my tip to win this pool and the whole thing.
The Ospreys are the form side in the Celtic League, playing decent rugby with Gavin Henson controlling matters from fly-half and should have a good campaign Castres are not doing well in the French Championship, but have got some big guys in Mario Ledesma, Richard Dourthe and David Bory and former Wasps Paul Volley and Mark Denney. Their home games will be a hostile environment for visitors but I think they will just be edged out for second place by The Ospreys.
Newport Gwent Dragons
The injury to Jonny Wilkinson casts a shadow over this pool but my views on Jonny's curent form are well documented and I don't even think a fully first Wilkinson could take Newcastle through another tough group. I wish him a speedy recovery. The Falcons' pack got shunted back by Saracens last week and I can't see them getting much from their visits to Newport and Perpignan. The Dragons lie second in the Celtic League, having won five out of five. Chris Anderson is so far producing the goods, perhaps bringing more creative attacking ideas with him from rugby league. Edinburgh need to build on last season's success but will find it mighty difficult. First up for them is a trip to Perpignan, where the best defence in the French league lies in wait. I have to go with Perpignan to progress.
Stade Francais, with the contrasting talents of David Auradou and Christophe Dominici, are the aristocrats of the French game and are massively hard to beat at home. I take them to come through. Ulster are very strong at Ravenhill, but are not playing well under new management. Cardiff have all the talent and a big support base but can't seem to do it when it matters and Gloucester may just be edged out in Paris, and that could prove to be the difference. The Cherries are not as dynamic as they have been up front and need their front five to recapture the rampaging form of two seasons ago.
Munster v Toulouse. I think the ferocity of the men from Munster plus, at long last, some luck will see them to their holy grail at Murrayfield.