Limerick Leader rugby correspondent Colm Kinsella profiles Munster’s opponents in Pool 1 of next season’s Heineken Cup.
LAST SEASON: Impressively secured a home tie in the quarter-finals of last season’s Heineken Cup. However, hopes of making the last four were dashed by Clermont Auvergne. Domestically, reached semi-final play-offs in English Premiership before losing to Leicester Tigers.
DIFFICULTY: Sarries, the only English side to reach the quarter-finals last season, boast a decent record in the Heineken Cup. The Vicarage Road side won five of their six pool games last season when their opponents included Biarritz and Ospreys. They have a hard-nosed pack and exciting back-line
STAR NAMES: Saracens had seven players involved in the 2012 RBS 6 Nations, including new England star out-half, 20-year-old Owen Farrell, who played in the centre for the Premiership side while lock Mouritz Botha is a key member of the Sarries’ engine room. Out-half Charlie Hodgson boasts bags of experience as does prop Matt Stevens and captain Steve Borthwick.
PREVIOUS WITH MUNSTER: The sides met at the semi-final stage of the 2008 Heineken Cup when Munster ground out a nail-biting 18-16 success at the Ricoh Arena. The sides meetings in the pool stages of the 1999-2000 competition were classics, with Munster recording a one-point voctory in both.
FAN APPEAL: Saracens generally play their home games in the Heineken Cup at Vicarage Road but have moved glamour pool games – including their meeting with Ospreys last season - to Wembley. A crowd of over 40,000 turned up then and the English side may well opt to change their marquee home fixture with Munster to Wembley.
LAST SEASON: Became the first ever Scottish side to reach the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup last season when impressively finishing top of their group with five wins from their six pool games. Their pool opponents then also included French side Racing Metro, who they will renew rivalry with next season. Edinburgh went on to topple Toulouse in the quarter-finals, before bowing out at the hands of Ulster at the last four stage. Edinburgh’s form in the RaboDirect PRO12 was poor with the Scots finishing second-from-bottom in the table, recording just six wins from their 22 regular season games.
DIFFICULTY: Munster will be very familiar with Edinburgh as the sides meet twice each season in the PRO12. The Scots will be anxious to build on their impressive run in Europe last season and are especially difficult to beat at Murrayfield.
STAR NAMES: Half-backs, Greig Laidlaw, who kicked Scotland’s points in their recent win over Australia, and scrum-half Mike Blair form at impressive partnership. Centre Nick de Luca, and winger Tim Visser are potential match-winners, while up front, the likes of Allan Jacobsen, hooker Ross Ford and flanker Ross Rennie are highly regarded forwards.
PREVIOUS WITH MUNSTER: The sides have never met before in the Heineken Cup.
FAN APPEAL: Edinburgh is a very attractive venue for Munster fans. The picturesque, historic city with a wide range of restaurants and bars is easily accessible for fans. The large capacity at Murrayfield means travelling Munster fans won’t have trouble sourcing match tickets for the game and flights shouldn’t be as dear as they are for international games.
LAST SEASON: Racing Metro were in the same pool as Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup last season also, but finished bottom, recording just one victory in their six pool fixtures. However, on the domestic front, Racing reached the play-offs in the French Top 14, before losing out to eventual finalists Toulon.
DIFFICULTY: Racing’s performance in last season’s competition seems to indicate that Racing Metro’s main priority lies in contending in the French Top 14. However, had they managed to come out the right side of the 47-48 free-scoring round two tie with Edinburgh at Murrayfield last season, they may well have mounted a stronger challenge for a play-off place in Europe’s premier club rugby competition.
STAR NAMES: Racing’s squad includes former Munster prop Julien Brugnaut. Racing’s Argentine fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez is one of 12 players to extend their contracts with the Parisian club. However, Springbok back François Steyn has returning to South Africa this summer. Hernandez’s fellow Argentine international Juan José Imhoff has inked a two- year extension while French international centre Fabrice Estebanez is staying on for four more years. Lock François Van der Merwe, loose forwards Jacques Cronje, John Leo’o and Antoine Battut have also committed their future to the club.
PREVIOUS WITH MUNSTER: Previous with Munster: Racing Metro and Munster have never played a competitive fixture.
FAN APPEAL: A trip to Paris is always an attractive proposition to Munster fans. However, the scheduling of the fixture may well determine the size of the Red Army which travels to the French capital.
Heineken Cup Key Dates 2012/13
Round 1 – 12/13/14 October 2012; Round 2 – 18/19/20/21 October 2012; Round 3 – 6/7/8/9 December 2012; Round 4 – 14/15/16 December 2012; Round 5 – 10/11/12/13 January 2013; Round 6 – 17/18/19/20 January 2013; Quarter-finals – 5/6/7 April 2013; Semi-finals – 27/28 April 2013; Final – Saturday, May 18, 2013 at the Aviva Stadium