Road to Cardiff 2011 starts here
September 27, 2010
Can Toulouse be deposed as Heineken Cup champions? © Getty Images
The road to the 2011 Heineken Cup Final began at Cardiff's magnificent Millennium Stadium on Monday, eight months out from the crowning of Europe's best side.
The city centre venue, which will play host to the showpiece event for the fourth time in its history on May 21, 2011, opened its doors to some of Europe's leading names for the tournament launch, with the great and good all hoping to lay their hands on the sizeable silverware.
The 16th season of the world's leading club competition promises a lot of familiar names, including that of defending champions Toulouse who claimed a record fourth Euro crown with victory over Biarritz last season, and Cardiff Blues, who clinched a memorable Amlin Challenge Cup triumph last May. But there will also be some fresh faces in the form of fledgling Italian side Aironi Rugby, fresh from making their Magners League bow, while would-be French giants Racing Metro 92 and Toulon look set to make a more significant impression.
New teams also mean new venues, with the cauldron that is Toulon's Stade Felix Mayol set to play host to Heineken Cup rugby for the first time while Racing's historic Stade Yves du Manoir, a venue for the 1924 Olympics, will also throw open its doors this season. Another former Olympic venue, albeit in its revamped form, Wembley Stadium, will showcase the mouth-watering showdown between part-time tenants Saracens and Irish province Leinster. The Heineken Cup also return to an old haunt in Dublin with Leinster welcoming Clermont Auvergne to the re-developed Lansdowne Road - now the Aviva Stadium - next month.
The fiercely-competitive battle for European supremacy features two Pools worthy of the traditional 'group of death' tag. Saracens and Leinster must do battle with Top 14 champions Clermont as well as this season's league leaders Racing in Pool 2 while Pool 3 offer an equally impressive line-up featuring two-time winners Munster, Magners League champions Ospreys, current Aviva Premiership leaders London Irish and big-spending Toulon.
"We anticipate more drama and entertainment in this year's staging of the competition," European Rugby Cup chief Derek McGrath said. "We have seen the growth within the teams and in particular the growth in their ambition with the likes of Leinster taking a game to the Aviva Stadium and Saracens staging a game at Wembley Stadium and we congratulate them for that."
Blues director of rugby Dai Young is looking forward to his side's return to Europe's top table but is well aware of the challenge facing his charges. "There are no easy groups and there are no easy games," he said ahead of his side's quest to get the better of Pool 1 rivals Castres, Edinburgh and Northampton. "We enjoyed winning the Challenge Cup last season but it has now gone and we must start again and there are some massive challenges in front of us."
Ospreys captain Alun-Wyn Jones shrugged off the task facing his side, declaring, "From a player's perspective, you want to play in the most competitive Pool possible. If you look at previous campaigns the most competitive Pools often provide team in the final four and that bodes well for us."
Leicester skipper Geordan Murphy, whose side were victorious at the Millennium Stadium in 2002, was taking nothing for granted ahead of their latest assault on the title. "Obviously our goal is to win it again but we are under no illusions," said the Tigers stalwart, who will lead his side against Treviso, Perpignan and Scarlets in the pool stages. "You may talk about tough groups but the quality within all the pools speaks for itself. As ever, our aim is to get out of the group and once you are in the knock-out stages anyone can beat anyone else."
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.