Pool 2: Leicester Tigers, Ospreys, Toulouse and Benetton Treviso
By Brendan Cole
This should prove to be one of the best pools with classic match-ups across the schedule.
The steady improvement of Benetton Treviso and the likelihood that no team will win five matches without topping the pool mean at least two relatively heavyweight sides are likely to drop out of the competition.
Though they are the reigning RaboDirect Pro12 champions after their last-ditch victory over Leinster in the final, Ospreys look the least likely of the ‘big three’ to progress.
The relatively inexperienced Steve Tandy has been appointed to take over as head coach of a depowered playing group, with Sean Holley and Scott Johnson both departing.
In the backline, Sonny Parker, Tommy Bowe and Shane Williams have left: Parker for London Welsh, Bowe for Ulster and Williams for a well-earned pension top-up with the Mitsubishi Dynaboars.
The pack still looks strong enough with the powerful Samoan George Stowers and Justin Tipuric in the back-row, and the trio of Joneses: Ryan, Alun-Wyn and Adam – making for a powerful tight-five.
Tighthead Adam’s immense scrummaging power, vital in Ospreys good results against Leinster last year, is probably the key to their chance of progression.
The Samoan Kahn Fotuali'i is a fine replacement for Mike Phillips at scrum-half but Phillips’ departure a season ago symbolised a lowering of the sights.
Leicester Tigers continue to be ever-present in the shakedown for the top prize in England but have been passed out in Europe since losing the 2009 Final to Leinster, with only two pool exits and a quarter-final defeat to Leinster to show for their efforts since.
The Tigers continue to boast a powerful front row, and strong ball-carrying elsewhere in the pack, while Manu Tuilagi will prove a handful for any opposition defence.
But getting the mix right in the 9-10-12 axis has proved elusive.
Ben Youngs still frustrates from time to time and lacks the electric pace and ultra-reliable service of Danny Care, while Toby Flood has yet to step into the ranks of truly elite fly-halves despite ample opportunity for both club and country.
In the centres, Anthony Allen’s career has also yet to reach the heights once predicted for it.
Alesana Tuilagi is another player lost to Japanese club rugby and the fact that locating unconsidered diamonds of his type has become much harder, along with the middling return on their investment the English duo at half-back, are among the factors in Leicester’s relative decline.
Toulouse are another club used to being on top both at home and in domestic competition but their shock exit to Edinburgh last year was a sharp reminder that no team can expect to saunter its way into the semis any more, no matter what their quality.
After a slow start to the season, they are second to Toulon in the Top 14 and made a point with a thumping 32-9 victory over their big-spending rivals two weeks’ ago.
Lionel Beauxis was the out-half for Toulouse quarter-final loss last year but New Zealander Luke McAlister is firmly established as the out-half for the big games, having steered Toulouse to a second French Championship in two seasons at the end of last year.
With those two titles secured, and given their fine tradition in this competition and the fact that Leinster could draw alongside them by winning a fourth title, it would be no surprise to see Toulouse put plenty of emphasis on getting a good quarter-final draw this time around.