HEINEKEN CUP WHO'S WHO
Munster (ERC ranking 1)
Second to none in Europe twice within three seasons, they now find themselves in the strange position of being second best in Ireland. If it takes a nasty kick up the posterior to get the former champions in the mood, then the rest had better watch out despite the six-week ban on John Hayes which removes a player who has been part of the tournament furniture more than any other. Despite a six-week ban, the severity of his team's Magners League beating by Leinster in Dublin on top of their semi-final shocker at Croker last May ought to be more than sufficient motivation to drive them into a 12th successive quarter final.
Who needs Dan Carter? While the stricken New-Zealander spent most of the season waiting to take his crock of gold home after an achilles operation five matches into his £700,000 contract, the Catalans won the big prize without him. Winning their first French title since 1955 leaves them no excuse for not broadening their horizons. Five home wins out of five in Le Championnat this season shows that the fenced bearpit down by the Med is as daunting as ever.
Northampton Saints (14)
When it comes to the unexpected in Europe, nobody does it better than the Saints. Munster only had to turn up at Twickenham in the 2000 final to be anointed champions before Paul Grayson picked them off with three penalties. Remember, too, how, a few weeks before relegation from the Premiership in April 2007, they defied the odds and knocked Biarritz out of the quarter-finals when nobody gave them a prayer.
Benetton Treviso (28)
The Italian champions are nothing if not realistic, hence coach Franco Smith's heavy emphasis on the need to be 'competitive.'After several seasons at the club, the former Springbok fly half speaks from personal experience of one win in twelve since taking charge. In the five years since their best Heineken result, a 29-23 home win over Bath, Treviso won once in 26 matches, against Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade. It's difficult to see where the next one is coming from.
Biarritz Olympique (ERC ranking 6)
Still recovering from Peter Stringer's late blindside try which undid them in the 2006 final against Munster at the Millennium. As a European force, they have faded badly, failing to make the last eight in each of the three seasons since they had the trophy in their grasp. At least they are talking a good game and able to back it up with results -- five straight wins with Stade Francais and Perpignan among their home victims.
Gloucester Rugby (10)
Nine seasons have come and gone since they ran Martin Johnson's Leicester close during that semi-final in the less than salubrious setting of Vicarage Road. With nothing more than two losing quarter-finals since then, the Shedheads have had little to shout about on the European stage, not to mention the embarrassing matter of shipping 50 points against Cardiff in the EDF Energy Cup final at Twickenham whichultimately cost Dean Ryan his job as head coach.
Now they must start repairing the cracks at Kingsholm without French hooker Olivier Azam, banned for 12 weeks.
Newport Gwent Dragons (21)
Any team run by Paul Turner is usually worth watching, even one built on the proverbial shoestring. The days when Tony Brown's millions gave them real clout have long gone but Newport's encouraging start to their Magners campaign under former All Black hooker Tom Willis suggests they could be one of the surprise teams when they kick it the tournament off at Gloucester on Friday night.
Glasgow Warriors (24)
It has certainly taken them long enough but Glasgow are no longer simply making up the numbers. At Bath last winter in one of the outstanding matches of the season, they outscored their English opponents 5-4 on tries with Scotland wing Thom Evans running in a hat-trick. This time coach Sean Lineen will demand they go that step further even if they have to start without the injured Ruaridh Jackson, a Test stand-off in the making if ever there was one.
Leicester Tigers (ERC ranking 2)
The best of Anglo-Welsh enemies renew hostilities at Welford Road on Sunday and if it proves to be a case of familiarity breeding contempt, then nobody ought to be the least bit surprised. Last season's Heineken ties having finished dead level at 21-21 on aggregate, they meet for the seventh time in four seasons with the Tigers' fretting over a lack of tries -- three in five games. Geordan Murphy's unavoidable absence will do nothing to end the famine, not that they needed any tries to edge the Ospreys out last season.
Gavin Henson's preference to spend his weekends messing about on a boat deprives the Ospreys of a rare talent as the under-achieving Welsh region try again to rid themselves of the stigma of not delivering when the chips are down, most infamously at Saracens in the 2006 quarter-final. The fact that 13 Ospreys were in the Wales team which beat England at Twickenham on their way to the 2008 Grand Slam makes their failure to punch their weight in Europe all the more surprising. Under a rejuvenated Ryan Jones, they have what it takes to go all the way but we've said that before.
ASM Clermont Auvergne (17)
Leaders of Le Championnat and one of very few French teams to average more than two tries per match this season. There can be no doubting their worthiness as potential champions but the Michelin Men have made no secret of their desire to conquer France, then Europe. After eleven losing finals, most recently against Perpignan last summer, that clearly remains the top priority.
The unsung Italians must have spent the summer wondering what they had done to deserve being stuck in the same pool as the champions of England, the most expensively assembled squad in Wales and, on current form, the No. 1 team in France which is where they start followed by Leicester at home. The one blessing is that the team located between Milan and Bologna will not be laden by any burden of expectation and that a first Heineken win will fit neatly into the miraculous category.
Bath Rugby (ERC ranking 5)
One win in five Guinness Premiership matches adds up to a poor start, hardly surprising given the recurring traumas over the drugs scandal which has engulfed the club since Matt Stevens tested positive for cocaine after the Glasgow tie last December. On the credit side, Australian flanker Julian Salvi has made a big impact filling the void left by England's Michael Lipman, one of three Bath players given a 9-month ban by the RFU for failing to take a drug test.
Stade Francais Paris (9)
After two finals and one semi, arguably the best club not to have won the competition. They are undeniably the most colourful as befitting any organisation run by Max Guazzini and this season their pioneering owner will break new ground, switching the home tie against Ulster on December 19 to the 50,000-seater King Baudoin stadium in Brussels.With the final at their alternative home, expect the free-scoring Parisians to bust an extra gut and make the Stade de France next May.
Ulster Rugby (20)
Having blazed the trail for Munster and Leinster by capturing the trophy ten years ago, admittedly without the English Eurosceptics, Ulster have fallen a long way behind their southern neighbours without as much as a solitary quarter-final to show for their sweat. A rewarding start to their Magners campaign and Humphreys back at the control with Ian hoping to emulate brother David promises to restore Ravenhill's reputation for home rule.
Edinburgh Rugby (28)
Made a steady improvement last season under new Scotland coach Andy Robinson and kicked off last month with a bang. Headed the Magners League only to come apart at the seams in Swansea last week which hardly bodes well for their capacity to resist their first opponents, Stade in Paris on Saturday. Away wins will be crucial and the Scots have managed just one in 20 attempts, at Castres last season.
Still the biggest name in European rugby despite failing to win the French title for seven of the last eight seasons. Just the one try bonus point from nine rounds of Le Championnat represents a strangely subdued start which will make their opponents all the more wary. Under Guy Noves they have always been able to see the bigger picture and after five finals, their perennial coach will settle for nothing less than a sixth in Paris.
Cardiff Blues (8)
Gave one of the outstanding performances of last season in routing Gloucester at Twickenham, then suffered the cruellest of exits from the Heineken final, booted out by Leicester's Jordan Crane in the first penalty shoot-out. A poor domestic start has raised disturbing questions over their ability to cope without their injured Lions and failure to find a match-winning successor to Nicky Robinson at fly half.
Sale Sharks (16)
Almost half the team they used to be. Whatever happens in the coming months no pounding will be as great as the one they took at the hands of the big French owners like Mourad Boudjellal at Toulon. The departure of five international forwards to France left a big hole with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe's loss the biggest of all which is saying something given that they have also lost Sebastien Chabal and Luke McAlister.
One of the Heineken teams of the tournament last season, what with the thrilling double over Stade Francais which took them to the last four against Leinster at The Stoop and the moment of madness which cost Dean Richards his job and left Quins counting their blessings at avoiding expulsion. They won last week for the first time at the fifth attempt but will fancy their chances of exploiting Cardiff's vulnerability in their new stadium on Saturday.
Leinster Rugby (3)
Out on their own as the best in Europe and pretty good in Africa, too. My top three Lions last summer amounted to a Leinsterclean sweep Rob Kearney, Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip. After enduring long years of wounding accusations about not being able to hack it at the highest level, they are now equipped to retain their title and do what no team has done other than Leicester at the peak of their power between 2000 and 2002.
London Irish (15)
Irish are flourishing under Toby Booth's direction, scoring more than twice as many Premiership tries (15) than Leicester and Sale put together. Now, after four straight wins, they are about to find out how good they really are by tackling the champions in their own backyard. They will hope to fare better than Wasps, the last English team to take the acid test posed by Leinster at a packed RDS this time last year when the former Heineken Cup holders conceded six tries and more than 40 points.
Hard to believe that only three seasons ago the Scarlets went to within one match of making the final for the first time, knocking holdersMunster out at Stradey Park. Since then it's been downhill all the way in Europe despite a change of name and venue. Brive, first up at home on Saturday, is a must-win if the West Walians are to have any realistic
chance of survival against Leinster and London Irish.
How good to see them back at long last. Once so far ahead of their time, their four-try rout of Leicester at the old Cardiff Arms Park made the 1997 final the most one-sided of all. Now they return with a hefty British influence built around the English trio of Steve Thompson, Andy Goode and Jamie Noon although one try in four losing away matches in domestic competition hardly makes them contenders for the last eight.
Pool winners: Munster, Biarritz, Leicester, Stade Francais, Toulouse, Leinster.
Two best runners-up: (from) London Irish, Edinburgh, Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys.
Semi-finalists, assuming they go their separate ways in the quarters: Munster, Stade Francais, Toulouse, Leinster.