When it comes to the Heineken Cup, nobody knows it better than Guy Noves and Gareth Jenkins. The coaches of three-times champions Toulouse and semi-finalists Llanelli Scarlets have led their teams into 72 and 61 games respectively.
Noves has been there right from the start, coaching the Toulouse team that appeared in the historic first game in the tournament in Romania against Farul Constanta on 31 October, 1995 right through to their third title triumph in Edinburgh in May in what was the 661st Heineken Cup match.
Jenkins' Scarlets side arrived in the second season and have been the pick of the Welsh teams in Europe. Last season was the first time Toulouse and the Scarlets had met, but they are on course to meet again in Pool 6 this season with the reigning champions kicking-off at home against the Welshmen.
So what does Jenkins, who was among the coaching team with the British & Irish Lions last summer, make of the contribution made to the Heineken Cup by Noves, Toulouse and the French clubs. "When the Heineken Cup first started it was nearly an impossibility to go there and win. Almost everybody conceded 30 or 40 points and we learned some hard lessons. French rugby was far in advance of the other countries at that stage," said Jenkins. "The game was far more professional in France than anywhere else and it was better organised. France was also a very intimidating place to go. Some teams were beaten before they even got there.
"What the Heineken Cup did for clubs outside of France was give them something to measure themselves against. From our perspective at the Scarlets, we realised we weren't strong enough to cope against French teams away from home. We introduced Scott Quinnell, John Davies, Dave Hodges, Simon Easterby and Salesi Finau into our squad as a direct result of those early experiences and we began to measure up to the French challenges.
"Once we had the sort of quality we needed in the playing environment we were able to raise our game to the point where we finally won in France at Bourgoin in 2000. After that we were pretty competitive. "But what has happened in recent seasons is that the French clubs have moved on to another level. They have stepped up their game to such a point that an outsider would probably have to predict another all-French final this season.
"Just as in the early years, it is France that is setting the tone and standard in the Heineken Cup. It has left those of us who have been competitive in the past slightly off the pace.
"What I believe has happened is the French clubs have decided to adapt to the different conditions of the Heineken Cup - different grounds, playing conditions and referees. They have wised up abroad. Initially, the style and intensity of French Championship rugby was beyond us. It was a pretty loose and reactive game that we couldn't get to grips with.
"Then we started to realise that by playing a limited game against them we could frustrate them. It worked for a while, but now the French are playing Heineken Cup rugby better than anyone else.
"In Wales in particular, we know we cannot compete with the strength in depth of the French clubs, but we believe we have the talent to compete on equal terms. What we have learned is that you have to take a positive attitude into your Heineken Cup campaigns and that is exactly what we will do this season. "My players are really looking forward to measuring themselves against Toulouse, London Wasps and Edinburgh Gunners and they can't wait to savour the atmosphere in Toulouse in the first round.
"You can't help but admire what Guy Noves has achieved at Toulouse. He has got the record that every coach would love to have. He's continually able to turn out teams that are capable of challenging in every tournament in which they compete.
"It's not just his coaching ability that shines through, but also the way in which he is able to mix up the players in his squad. I'm sure the success of Toulouse in Europe has had a lot to do with Noves bringing in non-French players like the Makas, Trevor Brennan and Gareth Thomas. They have brought something different to his squad and freshened up the way everyone thinks about the game."
The directors of ERC voted unanimously at a Board meeting to postpone all decisions including the release of further instalments of ERC's distributable central revenues to the six shareholder countries until 19 February next when the Board will meet again to reconsider the issue.