With the domestic season done and dusted for another year it is the time of year where fans up and down the country bask in their side's glory or failings. It is a time for reflection, a time to diagnose what went wrong and what can be done for next season. Not only is it a time for reflection but also a time to look forward to next season and what better way to spark the debate about next season than the draw for next season's Heineken Cup.
This week's draw has already whetted the appetite of many rugby fans across the Northern Hemisphere with some huge fixtures on the card. In fact only two pools look to be foregone conclusions. Last season's champions Leinster, who will start as favourites, should have no problems progressing past Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier, although keep an eye on Montpellier who finished the season strongly to make the Top 14 final. The victors in that Top 14 final, Toulouse should also have little trouble progressing to the quarter finals. Harlequins and Gloucester may have something to say about that, but it is difficult to see the French champions slipping up so early in the competition.
Last season's runners up Northampton will have to battle a lot harder to make the quarter finals this year. Due ERC's seeding system Saints were placed in tier 2 and are drawn against Magners League champions Munster. How this is fair is beyond me, but it does throw up a mouth watering clash. The other sides in the group the Scarlets and Castres are both capable of pulling results out of the bag when needed, making this one of the toughest groups of them all.
Both Aviva Premiership finalists Leicester and Saracens both face tough opposition in the pool stages. The Tigers facing Clermont, who will be targeting a quarter final place, and Ulster, who had a strong finish to this season to gain a Magners League play off spot. The group made up by Aironi who are a potential banana skin, but shouldn't cause too many problems to the other sides.
Saracens will face the ever consistent Biarritz in pool 5; a pool also consisting the Ospreys and Treviso. The Ospreys have lost a handful of key players in the close season but will be looking to make amends for their recent poor showings in Europe. Don't discount Treviso either. Although they almost certainly won't progress in the competition they are capable of picking up results as they have shown in their Magners League season.
Pool 2, consisting of Cardiff Blues, London Irish, Edinburgh and Racing Metro, is another well matched group. Neither the Blues nor Irish will be satisfied with last season, whilst Racing were one of the most consistent team in the Top 14 and a team very much on the up. If they can reproduce their league form in Europe Racing should progress into the quarter finals with the Blues securing second place in the group.
Out of the 24 teams, there are about 18 sides that can realistically target reaching the quarter finals. Of these half a dozen are capable of gaining the title. At this stage it would be foolish to pinpoint a 2012 Heineken Cup champion. That said Biarritz, with current odds of 18/1, don't look like a bad bet.
Heineken Cup pools
Pool One Munster, Northampton Saints, Scarlets, Castres Olympique.
Pool Two Cardiff Blues, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing MÃ©tro 92.
Pool Three Leinster, Bath, Glasgow Warriors, Montpellier.
Pool Four Leicester, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Aironi.
Pool Five Biarritz Olympique, Ospreys, Saracens, Benetton Treviso.
Pool Six Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht.