Bath are previous Heineken Cup winners and perennialy competitors but the only trophy they have picked up in the last decade is a European Challenge Cup 3 years ago. Their squad features an array of solid Premiership performers, many of whom have been in and gone from the England set up (Abendanon, Hipkiss, Barkley, Vesty) while others are returning from the World Cup of varying degrees of success (Mad Dog Moody, Banahan and new signings François Louw and Kiwi favourite Steven Donald). Last season they were nudged out of a group that qualified two teams to the quarters because they lost to Ulster at home, which was indicative of their European form in general. They face an away trip to Glasgow in round one, which will provide a good acid test for this unit. Both sides are going well enough in their respective leagues, each occupying fourth place in their respective tables. Any side hoping to get out of this group will be targetting a win in Glasgow, the weakest of the away fixtures and to at least win all their home games. 4 wins in a pool with three qualification contenders means that you put yourself in the running. If they can give themselves that chance they will have the ability to heap the pressure on Leinster if Leinster fail to get any match points against Montpellier in the opening round. The Mole does not however fancy Bath’s chances of getting anything at Montpellier in round five.
It has been a long time since a Scottish club has made a big impact on the HEC. The Warriors have succeeded in avoiding wooden spoons in their groups by finishing above fellow make-weights Newport-Gwent in each of their last three campaigns and Viadana the year before that, usually with a pair of home wins against the second and third ranking sides in the group. Theoretically, we are not expecting Glasgow to be in the mix for qualification from the pool, but they have already turned over (an extremely youthful) Leinster at home this season in the PRO12 and lie fourth in the table with 5 wins. This is their hardest pool in years and with three teams who will definitely be targeting them. They face a double header against a Montpellier side who will be in the mixer if they get a decent result in their first game at home against Leinster and there’s be no opportunity to muscle out a pair of wins against the Dragons this year around.
Richie Gray and Alaistair Kellock shoul form a second row partnership of international quality and is probably the strongest unit of their squad. Their backrow also contains the muscular two the famed Killer Bs, Beattie and Barclay, though it must be said, the effectiveness of the Killer Bs was at its peak in 2010 and they did not have a huge impact at the World Cup. Scottish rugby is need of a shot in the arm of some format to lift it out of its dolourous state, but there’s little here to suggest in the wake of the World Cup, that Glasgow is going to provide that. Even their most exciting young tyro Richie Gray has decided to head south of the border at the end of the season. The halves combination of Cusiter and Jackson doesn’t inspire fear and there is little firepower out wide to find to make us think that any other their games are going to be anything other than an armwrestle which they are likely to lose.
Montpellier Herault Rugby
The Bouclier de Brennus’ defeated finalists are making their debut in H Cup rugby. They are armed with a shrewd coach in Fabien Galthie who was overlooked for the French job post-Lievremont despite his decent record with Stade Francais (Top 14 and H Cup runners up) and Top 14 runners up in his first season with Montpellier. They’ve made a shaky start to their league campaign but a few narrow defeats have made things look worse than they really are. Their first game at home is against Leinster and the Mole reckons it will determine much of their campaign. A home defeat would probably injure them seriously in terms of winning the group, but a home win would set them up for a proper tilt at the group as their returning internationals (including World Cup hero Mamuka Gorgodze, Scottish heart-breaker Lucas Amorosino and François Trinh-Duc) gel with their established Top 14 stars (Fulgence Ouedraogo, Remy Martin, Julien Thomas). French teams, especially ones without the established status of Toulouse, Biarritz and Clermont, struggle to fight on both domestic and European fronts, but word is that Montpellier are hugely interested in making a name for themselves in Europe.
Leinster are entering the tournament as champions, with a much more benign group than last season (Clermont, Saffacens and Racing Metro) and with a promising 6 wins from 8 in the Rabo PRO12 shorn of a large contingent of World Cup players. Include last week’s somewhat stilted win over Munster last week and things look pretty rosy for the boys in blue. That said there are some difficulties that Leinster must deal, namely in replacing lock forward tyro and cult hero Nathan Hynes and perhaps more importantly, finding how to fit the pieces of their back line together in the absence of O’Driscoll and Horgan, both of whom are certain to be missing before Christmas it seems. Leinster are healthy enough in the back line, with Luke Fitz, D’Arcy, McFadden, Rob and Dave Kearney, Fionn Carr and Isa Nacewa all legitimately challenging for places in the back line, with Madigan, O’Malley and Conway less likely candidates to have a contribution. The lack of talent is not the problem in the backs, but figuring out how to maximize it and build a new combination in place of one of the most established centre partnerships in world rugby are both questions that need answering. The arrangement of Leinster’s fixtures sees them play their two most difficult matches (on paper) in their first three games, which could really shape the destiny of the group, which is unlikely to be a two-qualifier group.
Of course then there is the issue that no team retained this trophy in recent years. Leinster made a faltering start at home against London Irish last time they defended the trophy and can ill afford to repeat that kind of start. That said, the Mole suspects that they will emerge from other side of the double header with Bath in good shape and given decent conditions, their home form will see them able to pick up five-point hauls at least twice (they did it all three times last season).
Pool 3 is unlikely to provide two qualifiers (most likely Pool 4 and one of Pool 5 and Pool 6) unless Glasgow gets hockeyed by absolutely everyone, which the Mole suspects as unlikely. More likely is that the winner will be determined by how Montpellier and Leinster fare away at Bath, and we reckon that Leinster’s experience and quality will see them edge this group.