The Heineken Cup reconvenes this weekend with comprehensive live television coverage and Clermont Auvergne the 3.50 (5-2) favourites to lift the trophy in Cardiff this May. The first three teams in the betting are all based in France so its odds on that that country will provide the Cup winners this season.
Ahead of the final group matches only nine sides have a realistic chance of winning the competition, three each from France, Ireland and England. The most likely final is between Clermont and Toulon and if that match transpires France will have provided all the finalists over the last two years and there will be a repeat of last year’s final in Dublin.
It is now over ten years since Jonny Wilkinson converted the drop goal that won England the World Cup final against Australia. The England centre has suffered more than the average number of injuries since then and a move to Toulon was seen as something of a step back in terms of his career.
However, it was Wilkinson’s kicking more than anything else that led Toulon to winning the tournament last year. They beat Clermont 16-15 in the final in which Wilkinson scored the decisive points. He had the best overall kicking conversion percentage record in the knockout stages and will again have a key role to play as Toulon progress.
Wilkinson’s injury woes began soon after the World Cup in 2003. Within two weeks of the final Wilkinson suffered a shoulder injury which caused him to miss the Six Nations in 2004. Over the next 18 months he played less than 1,000 minutes of competitive rugby. Injury also prevented him playing at the start of the 2007 World Cup, though he appeared in the final which England lost to South Africa, kicking two penalties but missing two drop goal attempts.
Wilkinson’s international career continued to be badly affected by a serious of injuries and the highlight remained by some distance winning World Cup before he found success with Toulon in the Heineken Cup. He was awarded the honour of player of the 2013 tournament during which his kicking was crucial as Toulon progressed to the final against Clermont.
It is fitting that such a great rugby player should prove himself in the Heineken Cup a decade after his greatest triumph. The tournament is the premier club competition in domestic rugby as it brings together the best sides from the home nations in Britain and Ireland, France and Italy. Each European team uses a different qualifying system to arrive at the 24 teams that play in six pools of four.
Historical records are used to determine the number of teams that qualify from each country. The tournament is held from October to May and is scheduled not to clash with domestic club competitions such as the Aviva Premiership in England and Top 14 Championship in France. The best eight sides qualify for the elimination rounds which culminate in a one-off final, this year at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Toulouse have the most wins in the history of the competition. They won the inaugural Heineken Cup in the 1995-96 season and most recently in 2009, their fourth win. The next winning most side is Leinster with three wins while Munster, Leicester, and Wasps have won it twice.
French and Irish teams have six wins each while the only other nation to provide the winner is England with five successes. Cardiff reached the first final but no club from outside France, Ireland and England have been represented in the final since.
Playing the final at home does seem to help teams win the trophy. Only Toulouse in the last five years have won the Cup after a final in their own country. That trend won’t be broken this season as no Welsh side can qualify for the final in Cardiff. Leinster have the best record in recent renewals, winning three of the last five finals. Toulon are striving to become the first French side to win back-to-back Heineken Cups.
The home team are the bookmaker’s favourites in ten of the twelve matches taking place over the weekend from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. British based bookies will be hoping some of those favourites lose on the back of their worst set of sports results last weekend since the iconic jockey Frankie Dettori rode all seven winners at Ascot racecourse in 1996. The eight odds on shots in the Premier League all won and there have been stories of small staking punters enjoying big wins on the strength of all the major English soccer matches going to form.
The Heineken Cup fixtures are staggered to allow for maximum live television coverage and all the leading online sportsbooks will offer in-play betting on most of the matches. Toulouse and Toulon are the only away favourites with the former 1.01 to beat Zebre in their pool match.
All but one of the six pools have been decided in terms of which sides win most points. However, there is one key matches in the context of qualifying for the knockout stages. Pool 5 could be won by either Leicester or Ulster with the former marginal favourites as they are playing the deciding tie at home.
One major British online bookmaker is betting on the teams to reach the final. Clermont and Toulon are both about even money (2.0) to qualify for last fixture in this years Heineken Cup. Northampton are the biggest priced of the nine teams that can still play in Cardiff in the spring. However, the odds suggest a repeat of last year’s final and Toulon will be hoping Jonny Wilkinson can again be at his best with his boot from conversions and penalties.