Leinster will be looking to make history by becoming the first side to lift the famous trophy for a third consecutive year, but they know they face a tough battle with the likes of Toulouse, Leicester and Clermont Auvergne who are all desperate to wrestle the crown away from Joe Schmidt’s side.
Elsewhere Exeter Chiefs make their first foray to European rugby’s top table, and they will be looking to claim some big scalps after a two terrific seasons in the Aviva Premiership. While the Jonny Wilkinson led Toulon will be hoping to make a huge statement after a blistering start to their domestic campaign.
Pool 1 – (Edinburgh, Munster, Racing Metro and Saracens)
Edinburgh shocked the world last season by winning their group and making it to the semi-finals, and while it is hard to see them repeating that effort they will be no pushovers.
Munster are a team that is synonymous with the Heineken Cup, having won the competition twice in 2006 and 2008, won every game in the groups last season and will be a major player once again.
Saracens topped their group last year, but were undone by the brilliance of Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals, the addition of Chris Ashton makes them very dangerous.
Racing Metro are a stereotypical French side, can be scintillating one minute and completely awful the next, could be dangerous if they get it together but I see them bottom of this group.
Group Winner – Munster 7/4 (BetVictor)
Munster have history and pedigree in this competition and I expect them to top this group just ahead of Saracens, who are generally 13/8. Edinburgh offer value at 12/1 with Stan James and are worth a punt if you fancy a shock.
Pool 2 – (Toulouse, Leicester, Ospreys, Benetton Treviso)
Toulouse are the kings of the Heineken Cup, having lifted the title four times. They squeezed through a tough group last year only to be knocked out by Edinburgh, they are desperate to clinch their fifth title.
Leicester are aching for a big showing this season after failing to get out of the groups last term. While I expect them to be up there at the end of the groups, their big game mentality could be questioned.
Ospreys are a team who have promised so much and delivered very little in recent years. Winning the Rabo Pro12 last season proves they have the talent but often struggle to find what is required in Europe.
Benetton Treviso should be the whipping boys in this group, but as they showed last year with their victory over Biarritz they can be a handful at home.
Group Winner – Leicester 9/4 (Boylesport)
I like the look of Richard Cockerill’s team this year, they have started the season very well and have a great squad. Toulouse are priced at 10/11 with BetVictor and will be there or there abouts, the opening game between the two sides will be crucial.
Pool 3 – (Harlequins, Biarritz, Connacht, Zebre)
Harlequins are itching to make their mark in the Heineken Cup, after falling at the group stage last season. They won the Challenge Cup two years ago, and certainly have the players to go far this time around.
Biarritz are one of the enigmas of European rugby, a team packed with stars that can never get across the finishing line. The French giants have lost two finals, but they did win the Challenge Cup last year.
Connacht can be tricky opposition for any team, beat Harlequins in the final group game last season to knock the English side out. The addition of fly-half Dan Parks will add big game experience to their ranks.
Italian side Zebre are one of the new boys in this year’s competition and will put up a fight but should finish bottom of the pile.
Group Winner – Harlequins 10/11 (Sky Bet)
Led by the inspirational Chris Robshaw the Quins should emerge from the group as winners. Biarritz and are 6/5 with Sporting Bet and with Dimitri Yachvili kicking the goals they will go close, but I can’t see them getting the better of the English champions.
Pool 4 – (Northampton, Ulster, Castres, Glasgow)
Northampton came so close to lifting the Heineken Cup in 2011. Exited at the group stages last season, but have started the season very well with five wins from six.
Last year’s runners up Ulster played some amazing rugby on their way to the final. They lost young centre Nevin Spence in tragic circumstances before the season started, expect them to turn in some massive performances for him.
Castres have found it very tough in the last few seasons, picked up one victory in the groups last season, but that did come against Northampton.
Glasgow finished second in Pool 3 last year, but didn’t pick up enough points to progress or even drop into the Challenge Cup, another tough year ahead.
Group Winner – Ulster 6/4 (Sky Bet)
I’ve opted for Ulster after their great campaign last year and the strong start they’ve made to the Rabo Pro12. Northampton at 11/8 with Bet Fred should qualify as a best runner-up, but I think the Irish province have a slightly stronger squad which will see them finish top.
Pool 5 – (Leinster, Clermont Auvergne, Scarlets, Exeter Chiefs)
Nothing more can be said about this Leinster side, champions for the last two seasons and bidding for a fourth title. Blessed with an outstanding squad and genius coach in Joe Schmidt, would be no surprise to see them make history.
Clermont topped their group last year, but couldn’t overcome Leinster in a classic semi-final. One the best squads in Europe, almost unbeatable at home but can sometimes be vulnerable on the road.
The Scarlets play some of the best rugby of any club side in the world, and when they get it right they are difficult to live with. May not qualify but could ruin another team’s campaign.
It has been an unbelievable couple of years for Exeter, pushed on after survival in their first season in the Premiership and finishing 5th. No team will enjoy their trip to Sandy Park, will be a very tough nut to crack.
Group Winner – Leinster 8/11 (Sky Bet)
The reigning champions have been handed a very tough group this season, but they have the class to come out on top. Clermont are 6/4 with Bet365 and are the likeliest challengers in this group, but their away form makes them easily opposable.
Pool 6 – (Toulon, Sale, Cardiff, Montpellier)
Toulon have assembled one of the best squads in world rugby over the past few seasons, and look set for a big campaign. They currently sit first in the Top 14 with 7 wins from 8 outings. An extremely powerful side that can go all the way.
Sale have endured a torrid start to the domestic campaign, failing to pick up a single victory. This is their first European campaign since they left Edgeley Par, and they need some victories to rebuild confidence.
Cardiff have been very consistent in recent years, reaching the semi-finals in 2009 and lifting the Challenge Cup in 2010. Another team with a very talented squad led by Wales skipper Sam Warburton.
Montpellier finished bottom of their pool last year, but came close to beating Leinster and with the likes of Mamuka Gorgodze in the pack they will strong opponents.
Group Winner – Toulon 1/2 (Sky Bet)
This star studded team should have no problems topping this group, their home form is outstanding and they have shown they can win on the road. Welsh rugby is at an all-time high at the moment and Cardiff are good value at 6/1 with Sporting Bet, but it is hard to see them finishing above Toulon.
Tournament Winner – Toulon 7/1 (Sky Bet)
I really think this is the chance for the French giants to step up to the plate. With the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Gethin Jenkins, Matt Giteau and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe in their ranks I can see them going all the way.
Leinster are best priced at 4/1 with Sky Bet and are many peoples tip, but I can’t see them winning three consecutive titles. Leicester are a great price of 18/1 with Boylesports and are worth an each-way punt given their history and current squad.
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