Heineken Cup - Round 3
Europe's finest primed for 'defining' round
Graham Jenkins
December 8, 2009
Wasps scrum-half Rob Howley poses with the Heineken Cup, London Wasps v Toulouse, Heineken Cup Final, Twickenham, England May 23, 2004
Rob Howley celebrates with the Heineken Cup following Wasps' victory over Toulouse in the 2004 season finale © Getty Images

Heineken Cup winner Rob Howley believes the next two rounds of Europe's premier club competition will be pivotal in the battle for this season's crown.

The former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half, who memorably tasted Heineken Cup glory with Wasps in 2004, has warned this year's title hopefuls that it could well be a case of make or break over the next fortnight.

"All the teams know that these back-to-back rounds are often the defining moment of the competition," said Howley. "These games can either give you momentum and lift you to the top of your group or leave you floundering."

As a fan of the high-octane drama regularly served up by the Heineken Cup, Howley is not alone and in his role as an assistant coach with Wales he welcomes the Test match-like intensity of the competition and the demands it makes on players.

"I think it is mouth-watering when you look at the sides that are drawn together," he enthused. "You only have to look at Leicester, Clermont and Ospreys, at the Blues and Toulouse, at Leinster, Scarlets and London Irish. You've got quality sides going against each other in every round. Unfortunately that means some quality sides are going to miss out but you know if you turn up on the day and play well against one of the top sides then you will have the opportunity to play for the title of the best side in the northern hemisphere - that is what is so special about the tournament.

"From a coach's perspective, you see how players react under pressure and the critical moments that occur in international rugby can happen in the Heineken Cup. It's great theatre and I think players aim to be at their best when Heineken Cup games come along. The rewards that come with being the best side in the northern hemisphere is the key.

"I also think the drama that the Heineken Cup has produced in the last few seasons means the supporters continue to get behind their sides and buy into the competitive environment of the competition."

The Heineken Cup reaches Round 3 this weekend with another series of eagerly-anticipated clashes - but who will take a step closer to this season's finale at the Stade de France in Paris on May 22, 2010? Rob Howley gives us his views on four of the big match-ups:

Munster v Perpignan - Pool 1, Thomond Park, Limerick, Friday, December 11
"The tournament means something special to Munster, they have an affinity with the Heineken Cup that is unlike any other region. I think Perpignan will be disappointed with their performance against Treviso and Munster will be well aware of that. Munster will also sense an opportuntity to generate some momentum which they haven't been able to do in the Magners League to date. They certainly have a passionate support base at Thomond Park who show rugby a great respect and it is a special place to play and you need to have your 'A' game if you want a chance of beating them."

Cardiff Blues v Toulouse - Pool 5, Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday, December 12
"The Blues will be going into the game with a psychological advantage having beaten Toulouse in the quarter-finals last year. They'll be looking to get the first game under their belt and win because it is a real boost if you win your home game before going away to face the same opposition the following week. The Blues are a difficult side to play against on their day and they know that they have to win that game."

Scarlets v Leinster - Pool 6, Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli, Saturday, December 12
"Scarlets got a great win up at London Irish, they played some great rugby and got themselves on top in the pool. Unfortunately they've picked up one or two injuries in autumn series with Wales. But the likes of Ken Owens has come in for Matthew Rees and has been in very good form. He's developed nicely and will look forward to the opportunity of playing against a buoyant Leinster side full of Irish international talent."

Clermont Auvergne v Leicester - Pool 3, Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand, Sunday, December 13
"The atmosphere in France, whether it is at Clermont or Toulouse or wherever, is a challenge. It's the way the French normally play at home, the tempo of the game and the crowd getting behind the side when they play fluent rugby. We spoke about the passion of Munster fans but the French supporters are exactly the same and maybe even a little bit more ferocious. This is a big game in a pool that also includes the Ospreys, and Leicester may accept a losing bonus point in the belief that they could probably beat Clermont at Welford Road. But any French side at home is very difficult to play against."

Rob Howley is a Heineken ambassador. Heineken are proud to be celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Heineken Cup and title sponsor since its inception in 1995. www.heinekenrugby.co.uk

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