IT’S BACK – AND ALL EYES ON THE HEINEKEN CUP
The rugby season is set to explode into life across Europe as the 17th Heineken Cup takes centre stage.
Europe’s finest will go into battle on the weekend of 11/12/13 November chasing the biggest prize in world club rugby, with all roads leading to the final at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday, 19 May, 2012.
Leinster Rugby will be chasing a third title in the space of four seasons when the race to reach Twickenham kicks-off with the reigning champions travelling to face tournament new boys Montpellier in Pool 2.
The Irish provinces have scooped five titles in 16 years, and reached two other finals, and their numbers will be swelled to four for the first time this season with Connacht Rugby joining the champions, Munster Rugby and Ulster Rugby among the 24 elite teams.
But while the Irish will be seeking to continue their Heineken Cup success story, history shows that Twickenham finals produce English winners.
No pressure, therefore, on Bath Rugby, Gloucester Rugby, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers, London Irish, Northampton Saints and Saracens to maintain a sequence that began with the Saints’ victory over Munster at the 2000 Heineken Cup final.
That was the first of three finals at Twickenham Stadium, with London Wasps winning the next two in 2004 and 2007. The Wasps stung Toulouse in 2004 and then beat Leicester Tigers in the first all-England Heineken Cup final three years later.
But while all roads in Europe will lead to the home of English rugby next May, the route will take in a few extra miles as reigning Premiership champions Saracens break new ground by taking their Round 5 clash with Biarritz Olympique in Pool 5 in January to Cape Town.
"The Heineken Cup is really important to us," said Director of Rugby, Mark McCall. "We want to do better than we did in Europe last season. We had an incredibly difficult group but it was a very important experience for us."
LONDON CALLING … more than 16,500 tickets for the Twickenham 2012 Heineken Cup final have already been snapped up by fans across Europe. Tickets are available from ticketmaster.co.uk
RACING METRO 92 v CARDIFF BLUES
No tournament record
Cardiff Blues – the only Welsh region to win a European title after lifting the Amlin Challenge Cup in 2010 – have signed Gavin Henson and will have five of the Wales team who played France in the RWC semi-finals earlier this month. Racing captain Lionel Nallet returned from New Zealand with a silver medal.