The Heineken Cup has consigned last season to history and the scandal of Bloodgate appears to have trickled away as the tournament gears up for its 15th anniversary.
Leinster seem poised to hoist the cup again
The Heineken Cup has consigned last season to history and the scandal of Bloodgate appears to have trickled away as the tournament gears up for its 15th anniversary. The architect of that fake blood incident in last year's quarter-final between Harlequins and Leinster, Dean Richards, has long gone while Quins, who open their European campaign against last year's beaten semi-finalists Cardiff in the Welsh capital tomorrow, have not.
Since then the Londoners have been in freefall, but a recent win against Wasps and a draw with Newcastle suggest the team are returning to form at just the right stage for the club game's biggest stage. Mark Evans dismisses suggestions that the club should have been thrown out of the competition for the fake blood row last year, but he will be all too aware how close the club came to that fate. "We came second in the Premiership last season, we qualified by right and we're playing in the tournament," he says.
"There was a possibility we might get thrown out but thankfully it's not worked out like that and we're confident of making our mark." Appropriately, two of the Heineken Cup's earliest champions, 1998-99 winners Ulster, and Bath, champions the previous year, kick off the tournament at Ravenhill tonight in Pool 4. Bath, like Quins, have struggled to gel in the Premiership following their own summer problems.
Club captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett along with wing Andrew Higgins have all left the club and are serving bans for missing drug tests and, following that sort of summer of upheaval, Bath coach Steve Meehan says his side have not even talked about their Heineken Cup aspirations. "We've not really sat down as a group and talked about our ambitions for the tournament," he said. "We felt we should have done better last year [Bath topped their group before losing to Leicester in a tight quarter-final] and our problem in Europe in particular is closing out games. We need to do that to go better.
"Things have settled down a lot following the summer upheavals and the guys are really hitting top form. The Heineken Cup really feels like it's coming at the right time for us." Ulster have been one of the form teams in the Magners League this season; they are second in the division while Bath have won just once in five matches. The only team more effective than Ulster in the Magners League this season have been Leinster, the defending Heineken Cup champions following their nail-biting 19-16 victory over Leicester at Murrayfield in May.
For their captain, Leo Cullen, the memory remains vivid and is one he desperately hopes to repeat. The first Pool 6 hurdle for a star-studded Leinster side, including the likes of the Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll, are London Irish, who have been at their creative best this season. The meeting has particular resonance for Cullen, who will come face to face with his school friend Bob Casey in a potentially gargantuan second-row battle. The pair remain close friends and holidayed together this summer, during which talk understandably strayed to the Heineken Cup.
"You get pretty used to playing friends in this game so I'll have no problem locking horns with Bob," said Cullen. "It's great if you win as you get the bragging rights for a few weeks while, if you lose, you never hear the end of it. He's a great guy and a great player and he like the rest of the London Irish boys pose a pretty tasty opening game for us. "But if we need to look for inspiration, we only have to look back to Murrayfield last season. As a player, you just want to repeat that feeling time and time again."
Leinster could hardly have envisaged a harder opening game in front of their home crowd against the 2007 Heineken Cup semi-finalists in a group that also includes the Scarlets and Brive. The London Irish head coach, Toby Booth, said the club had been working over the summer on strength and fitness with the Heineken Cup specifically in mind. The Exiles are without the influential full-back Delon Armitage, who is out injured with a dislocated shoulder, but Booth believes the club finally have the strength in depth not to be heavily curtailed by such setbacks.
"There was a time when we had just 25 players that were good enough for this stage and now that's more like 35 so the belief is massive in that if one player drops out, another just slots in," he says. "That's no disrespect to Delon as you always want a player of that calibre in your starting line-up particularly when you're up against a side as formidable as Leinster. "But we're not at all daunted that they're Heineken Cup champions. Far from it, in fact, as the only way is down for them whereas we feel we're still a team on the rise."
This year's cup winners will be decided in the final in Paris on May 22. Last season Wales had arguably their best chance of a first home success in the tournament only for Cardiff Blues to lose in a sudden-death penalty kick-off against Leicester in the last four. The Blues, with Gethin Jenkins, Xavier Rush and Martyn Williams all out injured, have managed just one win this season. but one of their stars, Jamie Roberts, who was prolific in the British and Irish Lions summer tour, has been given the all clear to take on Quins after a series of injury setbacks.
"I'm raring to go and the results that have gone before mean nothing. We had that same problem last season and then ended up topping our pool with six wins out of six. Sure, that'll be hard to replicate but we're confident," he says. The biggest threats to Leinster appear to come from France, where player budgets among the top teams are more than double those of their salary-capped rivals in the rest of Europe.
Richard Cockerill, whose Leicester side begin against the Ospreys, says he is not worried about the difference in money. "As a coach you'd always like more money to bring in top players, but it doesn't seem to hinder us for whatever reason so I'm not complaining, well, not too much anyway," he says. The majority of French spending has gone on English players who have been snapped up on lucrative contracts: among them James Haskell, a former Heineken Cup winner with Wasps in 2007.
Haskell, whose Stade Francais side host Edinburgh tomorrow, aims to use the tournament as a springboard for winning back his England place. "I'm playing some of the best rugby of my career right now, and I'd be disappointed if my Stade performances don't get me a recall. I absolutely loved winning with Wasps and want to do it again," he says. firstname.lastname@example.org