Saints and Saracens, Warriors and, um, Edinburgh: Heineken Cup Preview

This time last year we were our usual slightly hesitant, nay, pessimistic selves. No-team north of Berwick had a chance in the Heineken Cup, and it would be the same old slide from faint hope to pre-Six Nations despair.

Then came Edinburgh’s often glorious but never less than dramatic run to the semi-finals that went against the run of their league form (before, during and since), and certainly the expectations of the rugby producers at Sky Sports who decided not to show one of the most dramatic games of rugby ever seen by those who watched it (including our two Alans).

Whether or not we’ll see a rematch of the 11-try thriller with Racing Metro this time around, Edinburgh should still be the standout team in terms of rugby in a pool containing regular stodge merchants Munster and Saracens. If they don’t pick up their defence and concentration though, it is hard to see them being the standout team in terms of results against two teams adept at grinding out wins. Munster have already travelled to Murrayfield with a B side and won, so they won’t be too worried about their prospects in the coming weeks. Still, being underestimated is where Scottish sides are most at home.

Saracens at the national stadium would be an excellent place to start, and offers us an early chance to see David Denton and Kelly Brown go head to head for the first time. Brown missed the key Scotland games last season and the young back row was the find of last year’s Six Nations (at least until Stuart Hogg got his first cap). Working out who to fit in against the All Blacks is a big problem for Andy Robinson, but that will have to wait for now.

If they’ve been watching the tapes, Saracens have one mission: stifle Edinburgh and wait for the penalties to roll in. Edinburgh have plenty of attacking options but their biggest threat is Visser, and you can be sure Saracens will know this. The likes of Matt Scott or Tom Brown may be lesser known quantities and could perhaps find space in between all the guys chasing the big wing around. Saracens may also target Laidlaw at 10, who has had a less impressive start to the season than previously.

Up front Edinburgh will need all Neil Back’s nous to keep them from giving away stupid penalties. Is that possible? The set piece has been excellent at times and inept at others – that could be down to the odd Italian referee – but they have struggled to get their offloading game going, relying instead on moments of inspiration from the backs. Finally they have front row depth though and an enforcer in Sean Cox.

This one could be close. Last year Edinburgh closed out the narrow margins in Europe but lost them in the Rabodirect PRO12. This year seems no different. Roll on Saturday?

Edinburgh team to face Saracens at Murrayfield on Saturday 13th October: Tom Brown, Lee Jones, Nick De Luca, Matt Scott, Tim Visser, Greig Laidlaw (capt), Richie Rees; John Yapp, Ross Ford, Willem Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Sean Cox, David Denton, Ross Rennie, Stuart McInally
Replacements: Andy Titterrell, Allan Jacobsen, Geoff Cross, Robert McAlpine, Netani Talei, Chris Leck, Harry Leonard, Dougie Fife

Kick-off at 1.35pm, live on Sky Sports

In amongst all the wonder at Edinburgh last season, it should be remembered that Glasgow had a fairly solid pool campaign and were not that far off qualifying for the Amlin Challenge Cup. They then went on to build on that with a semi-final spot in the RaboDirect Pro12 based on consistency, and rock solid defence. While Edinburgh’s league form has continued where they left off last season (sublime to the ridiculous sort of stuff) Glasgow have again started to pick up the wins and currently sit 3rd.

They have arguably an evenly balanced pool with Castres, Ulster and Northampton (two of Gregor Townsend’s old teams) but things are never that easy.

The worry for Glasgow is depth – they are a strong squad on paper but the number of medium-long term injuries must be worrying for Townsend as he heads into his first Heineken Cup as a coach. There’s just about a teamsworth of injuries unavailable, including a handy front row (Welsh, MacArthur, Low), their top half back pair (Cusiter and Weir) and most potent scoring threat in DTH Van Der Merwe. Plus Rob Harley, Rory Lamont, and more.

Win away without losing too many men and Glasgow are off to a flyer, even with Ulster the major threat in the pool. Lose or pick up a couple of injuries and the pool will begin to look quite daunting.

It’s not all bad though. Stuart Hogg is fit earlier than expected, and they’ll be looking to him to spark something from almost everywhere and anywhere on the pitch. Peter Horne is evolving into a key presence in the backline as he assumes kicking duties from Ruaridh Jackson while Sean Lamont will be keen to step up and show he shouldn’t be forgotten behind all these youngsters, especially against his old team Northampton.

Townsend has done some shuffling to his back row to accomodate first choice Wilson and new boy Strauss, while he has opted for class over tenacity at 7 as Barclay relegates Fusaro to the bench. It’s a ball carrying group, that’s for sure. If it does turn into a forward slog with the Saints they have a hefty bench too but a couple of injuries in the backs could see them struggle at Franklins Gardens. Matawalu could be excellent value if he comes on late with a little space – and that is all he needs to work in.

Saints have had a good start in the Aviva but most of their games have been close and they lost last time out. Just the sort of side Glasgow will look to wind up. I’d love to see them pull off a result, they are long overdue some luck in Europe and are building real consistency in terms of results; that’s the important part.

Glasgow Warriors team to face Northampton Saints on Sunday 14th October: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Sean Lamont, Ruaridh Jackson, Henry Pyrgos; Ryan Grant, Dougie Hall, Mike Cusack, Tim Swinson, Al Kellock (capt), Josh Strauss, John Barclay, Ryan Wilson
Replacements: Finlay Gillies, Ofa Fainga’anuku, Gordon Reid, Tom Ryder, Chris Fusaro, James Eddie, Niko Matawalu, Peter Murchie

Kick off 12.45pm, live on Sky Sports 1

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