It will be no evening in the snug for Exeter and Zebre
CUP DEBUTANTS:THE ARRIVAL of Exeter Chiefs to Leinster and Connacht’s journey to Italy at the weekend brings the competition debutants into full glare. Exeter captain Tom Hayes is expecting “a baptism of fire” in the RDS while Connacht face a team, who were precisely where the Galway side were last season, dipping their toes into the icy waters of the tournament for the first time.
Connacht, last season’s debutants, face Zebre who are this season’s first-timers. That first pool match might have a Ground Hog day feel for Eric Elwood and his team may recall how the step up into the glamour event preyed on their nerves. But in another way it passes on the newcomer baton, probably with an inscription saying that it’s not exactly an evening in the snug.
Connacht’s big moment last season may well have been against giants Toulouse when they played in Galway and lit up an exceptional evening, even if the home team fell short.
Carnival spirit is one thing but Connacht’s only win from six pool games was against Harlequins, who will have seen the defeat as a great opportunity to have clinched a place in the quarter-finals missed.
The win against the English side was a first Connacht victory since September of that season as they had lost the last 14 matches, including all five of their debut Heineken Cup matches.
Montpellier also debuted last season and although the French team did a little better than Connacht not so much to suggest that the first time in the Heineken Cup is a steep learning experience. They also won just one match from the six pool games but managed two draws for 10 points to Connacht’s six points.
In that light holders Leinster will be particularly sharp to what Exeter might bring as the Dublin side’s experience against Montpellier in their opening match was a reminder that sometimes a 16-16 draw can be a good thing.
It took Jonathan Sexton to hold his nerve and slot an injury-time penalty to earn the cup holders a battling draw against the French team in their cup opener.
Two early Sexton penalties put Leinster 6-3 ahead but Fulgence Ouedraogo’s try helped the home side take a 13-6 lead by half-time. Francois Trinh-Duc’s penalty extended Montpellier’s lead but Seán Cronin’s try got Leinster back into the game with Leinster producing some late pressure, Sexton’s late kick ensuring the draw.
Toulon opened their Heineken Cup account in 2010-11, the same year as Racing Metro. Racing Metro played six pool matches and won just two with four defeats, while Toulon made a bigger impact at the pool stages and from seven matches won four and lost three.
In fact Toulon did well enough to get into the quarter-final against Perpignan, where they narrowly lost 29-25 in Barcelona Olympic Stadium. The big spending outfit were able to bring a multinational team of Rory Lamont, Jonny Wilkinson, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, George Smith and former Springbok Joe van Miekerk. They may have bucked the trend of struggle but it came at a cost, a financial one.
Gloucester made their Heineken Cup debut in 200-01 and like Toulon fought their way out of the group to make it through to the quarter-finals, beating Cardiff Blues 21-15 in Kingsholm before falling to mighty Leicester in Vicarage Road 19-15.
That was a rare cameo for a debutant and tradition decrees that the first time in the competition is roll-up-the-sleeves time. Think of Italy’ s Calvisano who debuted in 2001-02 and lost six from six in their first run of matches to finally finish with a record of played 42, won two.