As the Heineken Cup reaches this landmark season, it's astonishing to think back to where it all began, in an unheralded sea-side town of Constanta in 1995. Since then, it has grown to the point where it is now almost international standard and showcases the very best talent in world rugby in front of passionate crowds. Claiming the Heineken Cup in the spring remains the ultimate prize for all 24 of the teams involved in the competition, and we can be assured of quality, dynamism, plenty of twists and turns and many more memories before the champions are crowned at the Stade de France in May.
In terms of kicking off the 15th season with a bang, it doesn't get better than the clash of Leinster vs London Irish at the RDS Showground on Friday night. The encounter between the champions of 5 months ago and the young pretenders to their throne promises to be a masterpiece, with both sides eager to play football and score tries. For many people, these two teams are the best outside of France at the moment with London Irish possibly the dark horses to win the whole competition, and Leinster sure to be buoyed by their triumph at Murrayfield in May.
It's perfectly feasible to say they are two of the best sides in the competition and a sign of the test the Heineken Cup provides in that they have ended up in the same group desperate to kick off with a win.
Apart from their opening 40 minutes of the season against Saracens, Irish have maintained their free flowing, dynamic style whilst Leinster will be full of confidence having 'nilled' their bitter rivals Munster last weekend, running in three tries through their mercurial backs.
It could be an absolute belter on Friday night, with players from both sides who can win a game in the blink of an eye. I sound like a broken record when it comes to the Exiles' winger Sailosi Tagicakibau, but for me the 'Samoan flyer' is one of the very best finishers in the world game at the moment. He's up there with Sitiveni Sivivatu at the top of the charts, and it's just a shame that we don't get to see the Samoans on a regular basis on the international circuit. He's a joy to watch, and has been staggeringly good for a sustained period of time now.
Inside him, Seilala Mapusua, recognised as the PRA's 'Players Player of the Year last season', and Elvis Seveali'i, form a devastating partnership at centre, and together with Tagicakibau will pose all sorts of questions for Leinster's defence.
Leinster, in turn, have backs that can rip even the best teams to shreds, as their display against Munster last weekend proved. Brian O'Driscoll was a player who came back from the Lions with his already brilliant reputation as Ireland's Grand Slam winning captain enhanced still further, whilst Jonny Sexton has continued his assured displays from the semi final and final of this competition last year in ensuring that the departed Felipe Contepomi has not been missed.
With only one team likely to come out of this group, both teams will be eager to start with a win and nothing would be a more fitting start to the 15th season than the young pretenders jolting the current champions on the opening night. That said, London Irish won't see it as the end of the world if they were to take an away losing bonus point. So often in the Heineken Cup, the away points can make all the difference, and looking at this group, it could be crucial.