Heineken Cup Previews – Tough openers for all four Provinces

BOD’s last season: Brian O’Driscoll is expected to start against Ospreys

BOD’s last season: Brian O’Driscoll is expected to start against Ospreys

Next weekend sees the beginning of what could be the last Heineken Cup/Amlin Cup tournament. Twenty-four teams, Including the four Irish provinces, will once begin their campaigns all hoping that will end at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium In the final on Saturday, May 24th 2014. And the opening rounds could not be tougher for all four Irish representatives when new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will also be expected to be an interested observer over the first two rounds of the competition in consecutive weeks, as he finalises his international squad ahead of the Autumn Internationals against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand next month.

Long-term future of European competition still in doubt

But the long-term future of European Cup competitions remain in doubt. Both the English and French clubs have served notice that they will pull out of the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup when the existing participation agreement ends in May 2014; unless changes are made to the sporting and commercial elements of the two tournaments. In all the pre-tournament regional launches last week there was a real sense of this year being the defining moment of a sports event that has produced some compelling and thrilling highlights over the past 19 seasons but will it see a 21st tournament?

Pool 1 – Ospreys v Leinster, Saturday October 12th, 6.00pm

One of the most eagerly-anticipated first round clashes will see Amlin Challenge Cup holders Leinster travel to face the Ospreys this Saturday evening, October 12. Leinster will be hoping to bounce back after their four-point defeat by Munster in the Rabo Direct clash last Saturday evening in Thomond Park. Brian O’Driscoll is also expected to return to action this weekend for the first time since last summer’s Lions Tour. Therefore in this season to end all seasons, it is tempting to draw the battle line between the Celts and Italians on one side and the French and the English on the other. It is not quite as simple as that. Relations between the regions of Wales and the Irish provinces have been tepid from the earliest days of the Celtic League. Wales have never been able to stifle their yearning to go east into England for their rugby, rather than west, north and south, the directions the Pro12 takes them. It doesn’t matter that there may be nothing personal between Brian O’Driscoll, who is expected to return this weekend, and Alun Wyn Jones, the Lions captain in that last Test, but their meeting in Swansea symbolises a rivalry, the temperature of which continues to rise.

Pool 3 – Connacht v Saracens, Friday October 11th, 8.00pm.

This Friday evening, October 11, Connacht host last season’s beaten semi-finalists – Saracens in a very tough opener at the start of the Pat Lamb era at The Sportsground in Galway. If they avoid defeat it would be a tremendous boost for Connacht ahead of their trip to Italy on the following week to play Zebre of Parma.

Pool 5 – Ulster v Leicester Tigers, Friday October 11th, 8.00pm

On the same evening at the same time Ulster and Leicester will meet in a crunch Pool 5 engagement on the opening night of the tournament at Ravenhill. There could not be a more exciting way to launch a valedictory Heineken Cup than by pitching the most formidable of the breakers into the backyard of one of the four provinces of Ireland, all of whose very viability is threatened – so they are told by those that would shape a future without them – by their possible loss of contact with the English clubs. Apart form the result the game should also serve as a rallying cry for the future of the Heineken Cup.

Pool 6 – Edinburgh v Munster, Saturday October 12th, 1.35pm

Munster travel to Scotland this Saturday to face Edinburgh at Murrayfield Stadium for a lunch-time kick-off while Gloucester who host Perpignan this weekend will travel to Thomond Park on Saturday evening week for a 6 0’clock kick-off. Boosted by their victory over Leinster last Saturday evening this will be a tough start for Rob Penney’s team who did well to reach last year’s semi-final.

Rugby Fixtures

Heineken Cup – Rounds 1 and 2

Leinster – Pool 1

  • Round 1 – Ospreys v Leinster, Liberty Stadium, 6pm, Saturday October 12.
  • Round 2 – Leinster v Castres Olympique, RDS, 3:40pm, Saturday October 19

Connacht – Pool 3

  • Round 1 – Connacht v Saracens , The Sportsground, 8pm,  Friday October 11
  • Round 2 – Zebre v Connacht, Stadio Aprille XXV, 2.30pm, Saturday October 19

Ulster – Pool 5

  • Round 1 – Ulster v Leicester Tigers, Ravenhill, 8pm, Friday October 11
  • Round 2 – Montpellier Herault Rugby v Ulster, Stade Yves du Manoir, 4.40pm, Saturday October 19

Munster – Pool 6

  • Round 1 – Edinburgh Rugby v Munster, Murrayfield Stadium, 1.35pm, Saturday October 12
  • Round 2 – Munster v Gloucester, Thomond Park Stadium, 6pm, Saturday October 19

Autumn Internationals

  • Saturday November 9th – Ireland v Samoa, 5.45, Aviva Stadium
  • Saturday November 16th – Ireland v Australia, 5.45, Aviva Stadium
  • Sunday November 24th – Ireland v New Zealand, 2.00, Aviva Stadium