By SKIP BANDELE
You know winter has really arrived when the Heineken Cup, rugby union’s Champions League, gets under way.
The weekend saw Europe’s finest kicking off the competition, which will reach its climax at Twickenham on May 20 next year. Between now and then 24 clubs, initially divided into six groups of four, will do battle to reach the later knock-out stages.
Wasps underlined their status as clear favourites to go through with a 19-13 win over French side Castres. Perpignan, who opened their account against Treviso in Italy, should turn out to be the English club’s nearest challengers.
Leinster stated their credentials with an impressive 37-20 victory over brave Gloucester at Lansdowne Road, the match setting the benchmark Edinburgh and Agen will find hard to live up to. The Irish should make the quarter-finals with ease.
Calvisano and Ospreys will be hard-pushed to keep pace with English and French powerhouses Sale and Stade Francais. Both will battle for group supremacy throughout the six pool rounds, with the runner-up likely to still qualify for one of the two best runners-up spots. Although a great achievement in itself, not too much should be read into Ospreys’ shock 17-16 win over Sale.
Reigning European champions Munster ended Leicester’s 21-month unbeaten home record in their opening clash, but only by the narrowest of margins. In the closing minutes, the 21-19 success was achieved thanks to Ronan O’Gara, who converted a last-gasp penalty from inside his own half. Munster can go close to defending their title while Leicester can snatch a runners-up berth, but Cardiff and Bourgoin look outclassed despite the Welsh side’s first ever win on French soil.
Ante-post favourites, Toulouse, were humiliated 30-3 by Ulster, throwing the group wide open. Rivals, London Irish, suffered a surprise 25-32 defeat at the hands of Llanelli, but may still have a word or two to say in the coming battle for first place.
Last season’s defeated finalists, Biarritz, proved 22-10 too good for Northampton and should again go close. In a very lopsided group, both Borders and Parma will serve as no more than cannon fodder, although the Italians were thrashed 35-3 by their British counterparts.