Some points on the Heineken Cup
My Name is....
The French call it the H Cup. Munster fans refer to it as 'the Holy Grail'. Leinster folk call it the 'Heino'.
Ulster won it, irony of ironies, in the year of English clubs were not involved. Wouldn't it be great if it could be like that all the time?
Don't come home too soon
The Scots generally take the same attitude to qualifying from the group stages as their country's football teams do at World Cups. The exception is Edinburgh who made the quarter-finals in 2003/04 before gallant defeat at the hands of Toulouse.
Slings and arrows
English teams either love it (Leicester, winners in 2001 and 2002) or hate it (Gloucester and Sale, both famously garrotted at Thomond Park in recent seasons).
Toulouse (three time winners) are the unquestionable Real Madrid of the tournament.
The times they are a-changin'
Eleven years old, it has changed beyond recognition. Twelve teams, none of them English played in the 1995-96 season. Cardiff made the first final. They lost. To Toulouse. Okay, so not everything has changed.
From a trickle to a flood
A few thousand turned up to Thomond Park for Munster's first ever European Cup match, against Swansea on 1 November 1995. 75,000, mostly Munster fans, filled the Millenium Stadium. Most people don't even remember who Munster beat that day. It was Biarritz, in case you were wondering, who had the nerve to turn up.
Some French teams couldn't give a flying fromage about it. Bourgoin turned up at Lansdowne Road with half a team in December 2004, getting beat 92-17 by Leinster. At the same time, they were second in the French league.
Overmach Parma will become the 54th team to play in the tournament when they go to Netherdale this evening to play Borders. Parma beat Newport-Gwent Dragons in a play-off to qualify. This is the first season in which three Italian clubs (Treviso and Calvisano are the others) will compete.
The west's asleep
Connacht have never played in it. Awww. Until the 2004-05 season they were never even allowed to try, but now the IRFU have deigned that if they finish in the top three of the Irish clubs in the Celtic (now Magners) League, they can play in the Heineken Cup. They still didn't qualify though.
Farul's rush in
In the first year of the tournament, a Romanian club took part. Farul Constanta lost 54-10 to Toulouse and 86-8 to Benetton Treviso and thought better of ever entering again.
Twickenham will host this year's final, on Sunday 20 May 2007. It will be the third time the stadium has hosted the final; on both occasions English teams have won: Northampton in 2000 and Wasps in 2004. Fix.
The Smart Money
Ronan O'Gara claimed this week that Premiership rugby and many of the English players are overhyped. It's the French you have to watch out for, Rog. The French, who have won the Cup four times and provided finalists on twelve occasions, dominate this year's betting. The bookies have Biarritz as favourites at 3-1, followed by Toulouse at 5-1 and Stade Francais at 13-2. Munster are next at 7-1 with Sale the best-backed English side at 10-1.