The traditional perception has been that a Heineken Pool containing an Italian team is likely to produce two of the eight quarter finalists. If that perception was ever valid, it is now a proven misconception.
This Pool has fascinating sub-plots, not least a level of discontent among supporters of every other group that a game in Cape Town in January offers Saracens and Biarritz the opportunity to play in conditions which may distort the points-based qualification process for all others.
The Mole views Pool 5 as possibly the most interesting one of the six. On the face of it, Saracens should romp home. If they do, beware all others, because Sarries is a team that should thrive as the season progresses – particularly in the better weather conditions we get in April and May and with more experienced referees. But for the present, it may be that their encounter against Treviso will have more in common with their performances against Exeter and Worcester, than their all-singing and dancing entertainment versus Leicester.
A week ago Treviso were placed 5th in the Pro12 standings. No longer a surprise package, they have the capacity, when playing at home, to disturb any team in the competition for at least 40 minutes. With a group such as this, they will certainly fancy their chances of one home win and bonus points on the road.
Meanwhile in Swansea, will the Welsh revival at international level extend to the new look, Hook-less wunderkind, Ospreys? They have given occasional signs over the first eight weeks of the season that their young crop is a talented as that of Scarlets and despite a hesitant display at home against the same opponents last weekend, they would relish getting the opportunity to chase silverware in Europe.
BO are the road kill of French rugby this season. Without Yasvilli and Harry N, they seem bereft of confidence (and gameplans). The postponement of their 100th derby game against Bayonne in San Sebastian may have been a blessing in disguise, as it may have given them a chance to integrate their World Cup stars into the squad and prepare exclusively for their European tie without the distraction of a highly charged Basque encounter. Last in Top 14 table, for the first time in 18 years, with 6 defeats in 9 games and a points difference of -123 points, does not suggest that this is a game that Ospreys should fear.
All the indications from Biarritz suggest that their away game against Ospreys this weekend is not being relished with any great enthusiasm for one of the French perennials greats in European rugby.
So what to look for and what are the prospects for the initial outcome from Pool 5 on this first weekend of Heineken Cup action in 2011:
- Saracens – home win with no bonus points to either side;
- Ospreys – home win and a (vital) losing bonus point for a revived Biarritz.
What the Bookies think
Saracens are 11/4 to make their first semi-final appearance with Biarritz at 100/30. These lads rarely make mistakes, although Ospreys at 4/1 make look a good price come the end of January.