Heineken offers refreshing cup of redemption

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A new rugby cycle begins, destined to conclude a little under four years hence when the next World Cup is played in New Zealand.

There is a sense of renewal, and events before the World Cup concluded last month in France seem long ago. But as the 13th Heineken European Cup begins this weekend, it is worth recalling that strangely distant time when England were rubbish, Gareth Jenkins was coaching Wales and New Zealand look destined to win the tournament, and remembering how close this edition of the Heineken came to not happening.

Had France and England’s clubs carried out their boycott threat, the present season would have felt, not least for them, pretty desolate and anti-climactic. Instead we have the annual lift of European competition.

And in this year above all others, the chance of redemption for those whose French sojourns were huge disappointments – which means pretty well everyone except the Scots, who have enough to worry about anyway, and England.

For nobody is this truer than the Irish, a greater disappointment even than the All Blacks. All the more reason, then, for holders Wasps to regard their predecessors Munster warily when they front up for the opener at Ricoh Stadium, Coventry, on Saturday.

The indications are that Wasps will be rewarded for the risk of moving for the day to the stadium where they won last season’s semi-final with a much greater crowd than they could have accommodated at their Adams Park home in High Wycombe.

And while many eyes will be drawn to the scrum-half confrontation between Eoin Reddan and Peter Stringer, with the twist that Reddan is now first choice for Ireland and veteran Stringer the impatient challenger, this may be one match where who isn’t there – specifically Munster’s iconic lock Paul O’Connell – matters more than who is.

Wasps have reason to feel, as Munster may have done last year when the draw meant opening their defence of the cup away to Leicester, that this tournament does not show much gratitude to its champions. In a draw notable for its imbalance, Wasps have landed a beast of a pool.

While they are taking on the tournament’s most formidable travellers, Sunday’s match in Pool 5 sees last year’s semi-finalists Llanelli visit European Challenge Cup winners Clermont Auvergne.

The Frenchmen have power to spare. Newly arrived World Cup-winning captain John Smit competes with Argentine Mario Ledesma, who shaded him during the tournament as a player, for the role of hooker. And Llanelli’s Wales squad members may not welcome another sighting of Fijian wing Vilimoni Delasau so soon after he terrorised them in their World Cup defeat at Nantes.

Whoever extracts themselves from this pool will fancy their chances of going all the way, as will the victors in the almost equally fearsome Pool 6. Here, perennial contenders Leicester, given a fresh and intriguing dimension by the arrival of former Argentina coach Marcelo Loffreda, and Toulouse face tough trips to Leinster and Edinburgh respectively.

Or perhaps, with the tournament finishing in Cardiff, it is time for the first Welsh finalist in 12 years. Ospreys, with former All Black Marty Holah on the flank, Justin Marshall and Mike Phillips contesting the scrum-half shirt and Shane Williams gyrating on the wing, might have the wherewithal but need to make a fast start at home to Bourgoin, who must surely believe it is time they put their European failures behind them.

Ospreys will also have to get past Gloucester, who have injected Pacific flair in the formidable shapes of former rugby league winger Lesley Vainikolo and Fijian flanker Akapusi Qera, and everyone will as usual have to reckon with the French.

While Toulouse and Clermont face brutal pools, Stade Français’s opposition is merely respectable and Biarritz’s possibly not even that. After winning the last six French championships between them, it is surely time that one of this duo threw off the lack of ambition that has seen them fall short in Europe.

●Wales have appointed Warren Gatland as national coach. Gatland has agreed a four-year contract to lead Wales to the next World Cup in 2011. He led Wasps to three successive Premiership titles from 2003 and the Heineken Cup in 2004.

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