Britain's best primed for battle
September 29, 2009
Thirteen of this season's 24 Heineken Cup teams pose at the UK launch of the competition at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, © Getty Images
Cardiff Blues Edinburgh England France Ireland London Irish Northampton Saints Ospreys Scotland Wales
The countdown is on to this season's Heineken Cup with the big kick-off now just 10 days away.
The build-up to the latest battle for European rugby's biggest prize intensified at the Madejski Stadium in Reading where Britain's best set out their stall at the latest launch of the tournament.
England lead the way with seven sides set to spearhead their country's assault on the title - Bath, Gloucester, Harlequins, Leicester, London Irish, Northampton and Sale. Wales' four regional sides - Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets - and Scotland's two professional teams - Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors - also return to the mix.
Today's gathering followed a similar event in Paris, where the tournament will reach a climax at the Stade de France on May 22, 2010, with the Irish provinces set to put their case in Dublin next week ahead of the opening round of matches on October 9-11.
London Irish coach Toby Booth welcomed the Heineken Cup to his side's home with open arms but admitted his players face a tough task to ensure it returns at the end of the season. "Unfortunately there are a few good teams between us and then," he said. "We love any opportunity to test ourselves against the best and that is what is great about this competition."
The Exiles kick off their campaign against defending champions Leinster on October 9 but Booth is full of confidence on the back of an impressive start to their Guinness Premiership campaign. "We are back in the Heineken Cup after a year away and we have learned a lot as a group of players and coaches in that time," added a bullish Booth. "We want to test ourselves against the best teams and we certainly have that opportunity in our pool with Leinster, Scarlets and Brive.
"I think it is easier to predict the end of the economic downfall than it is to say what is going to happen in this pool. It will be great to go to Dublin to face the reigning champions. We have a lot of fans looking for bragging rights over them. History tells that you need to get results at home in this tournament to do well - solid home form is the thing. We have three non-English teams in our pool and that presents different challenges."
Harlequins have claimed many Heineken Cup headlines in the last year spanning their epic back-to-back triumphs over Stade Francais and the fallout from the fake-blood scandal. But chief executive Mark Evans refused to apologise for the fact that his side survived with their tournament status intact. "We came second in the Premiership last season and we got to the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup. We've qualified, and we are playing in it," he declared defiantly.
Cardiff Blues suffered more that their fair share of Heineken Cup heartache last season as victims of the first-ever penalty shoot-out. Martyn Williams' missed kick allowed Leicester to snatch a dramatic triumph at the Millennium Stadium and that crushing blow will serve as inspiration this time around according to captain Paul Tito.
"I haven't actually watched it and yes it still burns inside of us," he said before being forced to sit through the drama once again as part of ERC's presentation. "But this is a new season, we're looking forward to the kick off and have a big game with Harlequins coming up but it has definitely left a burning desire within our squad."
Northampton Saints enter this season's competition as European Challenge Cup holders and skipper Dylan Hartley is hungry for the challenge provided by the step up in competition. "Coming up from Division One and into the Challenge Cup was all about progression," explained the England hooker. "This year with the Heineken Cup - what better stage to test ourselves? Big teams and big players."
Scotland has yet to produce a Heineken Cup finalist but hopes are high after Edinburgh and Glasgow produced eye-catching starts to this season's Magners League.
"We've got a young squad that is continuing to make progress," commented Edinburgh skipper Mike Blair. "We had our first win in France in the Heineken Cup last year against Castres and we are becoming more and more competitive which probably wasn't the case six or seven years ago. We've got a tough pool, Ulster we know well trough the Magners League, Bath we've come across a few times and our first trip to Paris is going to be a real experience for us. We'll be up against it but it is a challenge we're looking forward to.
Confidence may not be brimming at the Liberty Stadium after Welsh rivals Ospreys made a mixed start to the season but coach Sean Holley remains positive. "There's been no panic down at the Ospreys," he insisted. "We've had several players coming back at different stages of their pre-season so hopefully we're timing it just about right."
Ospreys line-up in Pool 3 alongside Leicester Tigers, Clermont Auvergne and Italian side Viadana and Holley is well aware of the challenge awaiting his side. "You have to rise to the occasion as this is such a massive competition now. I think everyone is aware that every pool is difficult. Knowing a bit about your opponents obviously helps but each new season brings unique challenges. We've got some new players, a new coach and it will be a battle right down to the end."
Heineken Cup 2009-10 Pools: