Heineken Cup Pool-by-Pool Guide

Familiar faces expected to progress but Montpellier could be surprise packet

Castres Olympique
Best: semi-finalists 2001-02.
ERC European Ranking: 25.
HC record: Pl 58, Wins 23, Draws 1, Losses 34.
Suffering second season syndrome after unlikely Bouclier success courtesy of defensively inspired wins over Clermont and Toulon. Having lost all five games on the road, including to promoted Oyannax and Brive, Castres have the worst record ever of any defending Top 14 champions after nine rounds. If they lose opening two games, ala nine group exits out of 10 H Cup campaigns, could quickly lose interest again.

Best: Champions in 2008-09, 2010-11, 2011-12.
ERC European Ranking: 1.
HC record: Pl 121, Wins 81, Draws 3, Losses 37.
Come into this campaign without a core of leading lights who helped them to three cup wins in four years as well as their visionary coach of last three seasons, and despite last season's Amlin-Pro12 double again face a difficult task in advancing from group. Start away to bogey side having only played in patches to date.

Best: Champions in 1999-2000.
ERC European Ranking: 9.
HC record: Pl 77, Wins ,46 Draws 0, Losses 31.
Re-energised, and after successive pool exits won't lack for motivation especially against Leinster given the final of three years ago, and the big name signings, George North, Alex Corbisiero and Kahn Fotuali'i, are a signal of intent. Deserved draw at Leicester has them in good fettle though questions remain about outhalf and 'attitude'.

Best: Quarter-finalists 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10.
ERC European Ranking: 17.
HC record: Pl 63. Wins 30 Draws 4 Losses 29.
Caught in vicious circle of pool exits and ever tough draws as third seeds. A pack containing five Lions and an experienced, in-form, prolific outhalf (Dan Biggar) should be a match for anybody although once again not helped by WRU arranging fourth Welsh November Test six days before third game. At least it's in Castres.


Pool odds: 4/5 Leinster, 2/1 Northampton, 6/1 Ospreys, 11/1 Castres.
Verdict: A tough group of seasoned H Cup campaigners and most likely with only one to go through as an away semi-finalist. Perhaps Leinster, but only if O'Driscoll and the old guard return and they find their old mojo.

Cardiff Blues
Best: Finalists (1995-96).
ERC European Ranking: 11.
HC record: Pl 108 Wins 54 Draws 4 Losses 50.
Following embarrassing home defeat to Zebre there were rare signs of spirit on a visit to Dublin against Leinster and of a continuing revival in the win over Edinburgh last Sunday when the return of Gethin Jenkins from Toulon gave them a quartet of Lions, one of whom, Alex Cuthbert, scored another two tries.

Exeter Chiefs
Best: Pool stages (2012-13).
ERC European Ranking: 28.
HC record: Pl 6 Wins 2 Draws 0 Losses 4.
Well run club on and off the pitch, with bargain buys and academy products supplementing key leaders such as Dean Mumm again helping them into top half of the Aviva Premiership. Gareth Steenson is still kicking his points and they've added a harder, faster brand of rugby.

Glasgow Warriors
Best: Quarter-final play-off 1997-98.
ERC European Ranking: 19.
HC record: Pl 85, Wins 26, Draws 2, Losses 57.
The coming force in Celtic rugby and the Pro12 form team under Gregor Townsend. After finishing last season with 10 wins in 13 games, have won five out of five this season – albeit more on the back of their defence than last season's potent attack – and look better equipped than ever to end a run of 13 pool exits in a row.

Best: Champions 2012-13.
ERC European Ranking: 2.
HC record: Pl 16 Wins 12 Draws 0 Losses 4.
Ali Williams three weeks ago, Drew Mitchell a couple of weeks ago, the return of the hamstrung Bryan Habana this week, so the cast of expensively acquired galacticos/veterans continues.

The reigning Euro champions sit atop the Top 14 on points difference without much flair though with their battery of big forward carriers, along with Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau, in sparkling form.

Pool odds: 1/10 Toulon, 13/2 Glasgow, 25/1 Exeter, 25/1 Cardiff.
Verdict: Toulon will need kicking, and will get one from their benefactor, if they don't secure a home quarter-final from this group.


Best: Pool stages 2011-12, 2012-13.
ERC European Ranking: 21.
HC record: Pl 12 Wins 4 Draws 0 Losses 8.
Connacht will be be honest and competitive again, not least out west when Sarries, who'd have Connacht banished into the Atlantic, and Toulouse call, but it's been a trying, injury ravaged start for Pat Lam.

Best: semi-finalists 2007-08 and 2012-13.
ERC European Ranking: 12.
HC record: Pl 47, Wins 29, Draws 0, Losses 18.
Outmuscled by Toulon in last season's semi-final, they've bulked up with the capture of Billy Vunipola to supplement the force of nature that is Jacques Burger in the back-row and lead the Premiership with five wins from five. Have added some craft and should benefit from Owen Farrell's boot and his Lions experience.

Best: Champions 1995-96, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2009-10.
ERC European Ranking: 3.
HC record: Pl 131 Wins 92 Draws 4 Losses 35.
Front-row injuries didn't help their seasonal start and have only two bonus points on the road, though have five bonus point wins at home.

Hosea Gear has sharpened a cutting edge already containing Yoann Huget, Maxime Medard and Vincent Clerc, not to mention Gael Fickou. Luke McAllister is key, not least as Lionel Beauxis doesn't convince.

Best: Pool stages 2012-13.
ERC European Ranking: 35.
HC record: Pl 6, Wins 0, Draws 0, Losses 6.
Signs of an improvement this season with ex-All Black Brendan Leonard a beneficial acquisition in place of Tito Tibaldi, inside of Luciano Orquera who remains a stylish accumulator of points if strictly non-tackling. Finally broke their duck, thanks to Leonard's try in Cardiff three weeks ago and will assuredly target Connacht home game on Saturday week.

Pool betting: 5/6 Toulouse, 10/11 Saracens, 150/1 Connacht, 325/1 Zebre.
Verdict: While Connacht's Euro form deserves respect, this should be a two-way fight for a home quarter-final, with both heavyweights going through.

ASM Clermont Auvergne

Best: Finalists 2012-13.
ERC European Ranking: 4.
HC record: Pl 68 Wins 39 Draws 1 Losses 28.
Now serially scarred, the 43-3 defeat in Montpellier betrayed signs of a hangover from last season's Euro final and Top 14 semi-final defeats to Toulon and Castres, followed by Vern Cotter's mutinous critique of club hierarchy. Yet a spirited showing away to Toulon last week, despite their selection, confirmed the H Cup is their priority and they are virtually guaranteed three home wins.

Best: Quarter-finalists 1996-97, 1997-98, 2012-13.
ERC European Ranking: 10.
HC record: Pl 62 Wins 25 Draws 3 Losses 34.
A curious season for Conor O'Shea's Quins; seemingly still scarred by last season's defeat to Munster and Premiership semi-final beating by Leicester. Glimpses of high tempo game but lacking confidence when pressure comes on and could be second last domestically but for Andy Goode hitting the post on opening day with last kick for Wasps.

Racing-Metro 92
Best: Pool stages 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13.
ERC European Ranking: 26.
HC record: Pl 18 Wins 6 Draws 0 Losses 12.
Look what they are, an ill-prepared, expensively reassembled squad without much of a fan base under pressure from expectations of a rich benefactor. They lie eighth, thanks to one away win in Bayonne (inspired by Johnny Sexton) after Saturday's desultory home defeat to Grenoble, and despite not having hosted any of the top five in five home games. Yet still just nine tries in nine outings.

The Scarlets
Best: Semi-finalists 1999-00, 2001-02, 2006-07.
ERC European Ranking: 18.
HC record: Pl 111 Wins 56 Draws 1 Losses 54.
Inconsistency typified by backing up win away to Edinburgh with home defeat to Glasgow when Simon Easterby cited lack of composure in last 20. Limited budget means lack of a ball-carrying ballast up front, having never replaced Ben Morgan at number eight, and shoehorning full-backs and centres onto wing.

Pool odds: 1/2 Clermont, 3/1 Racing, 5/1 Harlequins, 40/1 Scarlets.
Verdict: Semi-finalists and finalists in last two years, and given their 64-match-winning run at Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont should be even hotter favourites than 1/2 to top this group.

Benetton Treviso
Best: Pool stages (16 seasons)
ERC European Ranking: 29.
HC record: Pl 90 Wins 18 Draws 1 Losses 71.
Big physical pack packed with internationals, indeed Treviso have 25 Test players on their books, with ex-Leinsterman Matt Berquist a goalkicking arrival. Usually good for one home scalp, but nine campaigns since any more than that, and will struggle to break down sides, not to mention living with higher tempo on the road.

Leicester Tigers
Best: Champions 2000-01, 2001-02.
ERC European Ranking: 13.
HC record: Pl 117 Wins 77 Draws 5 Losses 35.
Missing Manu Tuilagi, Steve Mafi and Mathew Tait, though Vereniki Gonevea has given them midfield clout and Niall Morris is having a fine season, so they will improve typically as season progresses. The Tigers will also bring European know-how, potent set-pieces and maul, as well as their Welford Road fortress, and the Ben Youngs-Toby Flood halfback combo.

Best: Quarter-finalists 2012-13
ERC European Ranking: 20.
HC record: Pl 13 Wins 6 Draws 2 Losses 5.
Behind only Toulon on points difference, they would be top but for unlucky home draw with latter and five TMO disallowed tries away to Biarritz in first two games. By rights too the livewire Jonathan Pélissié, scorer of 31 points against Clermont, and in-form Francois Trinh-Duc, should be French halves. Quarter-finalists last year, Fabien Galthie's men are apparently up for the Cup again.

Best: Champions 1998-99.
ERC European Ranking: 7.
HC record: Pl 110 Wins 52 Draws 3 Losses 55.
Don't come into Europe on the crest of a wave like last season but opening two defeats may temper excessive hype of last season. Ending Ospreys' ten-game home run also earned a third successive win. Should be highly motivated and with Bowe, Best et al are inching back to full strength. Need big games from Nick Williams and Ruan Pienaar.

Pool odds: 6/5 Leicester, 6/5 Ulster, 4/1 Montpellier, 150/1 Treviso.
Verdict: Ala Toulouse, Leicester are the old dogs for the long road and ought probably be favourites in a shark-filled pool. Ulster may well need to be through before last day visit to Welford Road. At 4/1, Montpellier could be group stages' value bet.

Best: semi-finalists 2011-12.
ERC European Ranking: 15.
HC record: Pl 97 Wins 34 Draws 3 Losses 60.
Alan Solomons has a major rebuilding job after curious transfer policy diluted Scottish core after preceding run to semi-finals. Cue a more pedestrian, pragmatic approach around low risk, close-in running and a kick-chase and territory-based game. Have progressed only twice from pool in 16 attempts, but Greig Laidlaw's return is a boost and they'll be up for home opener against Munster.

Best: Semi-finalists 2000-01.
ERC European Ranking: 23.
HC record: Pl 58 Wins 35 Draws 1 Losses 22.
On many occasions last season, but less so this season, Gloucester played some of the most enterprising rugby in the Premiership. Missing ballast of banned prop Nick Wood and retired lock Alex Brown, this has rippled through their back-row and playmakers Freddy Burns and Billy Welvetrees. Beaten at home by Sale and, last week, Exeter.

Best: Champions 2005-06, 2006-07.
ERC European Ranking: 6.
HC record: Pl 130 Wins 91 Draws 1 Losses 38.
Should be buoyed by last season's run and last week's win, which ought to give them belief they are through a transitional phase. Admittedly Paul O'Connell's wellbeing is absolutely key and Tommy O'Donnell is a loss, but good signs in front-row and maturing of Conor Murray and Keith Earls, BJ Botha and Casey Laulala are big-game players. If they avail of favourable fixture list will be strong contenders.

Best: Finalists 2002-03.
ERC European Ranking: 14.
HC record: Pl 75 Wins 46 Draws 1 Losses 28.
Seemingly a classic case of home-and-away, Jekyll and Hyde, French mentality, allowing for one-point loss at home to Stade Francais and last week's win at bottom-placed Biarritz. James Hook is flourishing as goalkicking full-back cum alternate first receiver. Watch out for versatile 24-year-old flyer Sofiane Guitone, top try scorer in the Top 14 with six to date and now in the French training camp.

Pool betting: 4/6 Munster, 13/5 Perpignan, 4/1 Gloucester, 20/1 Edinburgh.
Verdict: If Munster avail of favourable fixture list they will have the momentum to go on and advance.

Toulon 7/2; Clermont Auvergne 5/1; Toulouse 7/1; Saracens 7/1; Leinster 8/1; Ulster 14/1; Leicester 14/1; Munster 16/1; Northampton 20/1; Racing Metro 25/1; Montpellier 33/1; Ospreys 40/1; Perpignan 40/1; Harlequins 40/1; Glasgow Warriors 40/1; Castres 66/1; Gloucester 100/1; Scarlets 150/1; Cardiff Blues 200/1; Exeter Chiefs 200/1; Edinburgh 250/1; Benetton Treviso 425/1; Connacht 1000/1; Zebre 2000/1.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times