Pool 3: Connacht, Harlequins, Biarritz, Zebre
By Brendan Cole
With Italian whipping boys Zebre in the pool and Connacht likely to struggle for consistency across the six rounds, this could be a pool from which two clubs emerge.
Harlequins have made incredible progress under Conor O’Shea, who has produced a young, energetic team that won the Premier League last year, and the Amlin Challenge Trophy the year before.
That success has been built around the brilliance of New Zealand out-half Nick Evans, supported by the buzzy Danny Care who, when keeping out of trouble off the pitch, is England’s best nine on it with a superior pass and more speed than Ben Youngs at Leicester.
Harlequins seemed to be at the top of their form almost every week last year, though last year’s Pool loss to Connacht also shows that they can be upset and the Westerners will be aiming for more of the same.
Connacht’s own form is certainly a positive, and in Dan Parks they have found the ideal out-half to minimise their weaknesses and play a game based on territory, tackling and set-piece.
That said, when held at arm’s length they lack an effective change-up, and that is sure to limit their outlook against more polished outfits.
Are Biarritz one of those? Not necessarily. While they narrowly missed out on winning the Heineken Cup in 2010, and won the challenge cup by beating Toulon in the final last year, the season just gone was a bad one overall which saw them flirt with relegation at one stage and finish ninth in the end.
Currently eighth and with mixed results to date, results so far indicate they will struggle to stay in touch with the upper echelons again at home. Doing well domestically will be a massive focus.
If fully committed, the quality is there - Fabien Barcella, Jerome Thion and Imanol Harinorduquy are among the French stars they can call on in the pack, while Dmitri Yachvili remains one of the best playmaking nines in the business behind the scrum.
But Connacht may even fancy their chances of an upset at The Sportsground, and with their high tempo and a good track record in France, Quins could pull off a surprise win away from home.
Even if Biarritz do make it through, they will be a plum draw in the quarter.