Tonight I shall be travelling down to the Stoop to see the Harlequins take on Castres in the first-ever game in the new Rugby Champions Cup, the new pan-European competition that replaces the 19-years old and now defunct Heineken Cup.
It’s basically the same competition with slightly more weight given to the English and French teams and slightly less to the Pro12 ones, especially Italy … and more television money. This time there are 20 teams in the group stages, not 24, and only the group winners and the three ‘best losers’ overall go through to the knockout stages.
It’s designed to be more intense and more exciting than the Heineken Cup and in my judgement might just succeed in this goal. In effect every single match is a matter of ‘do or die’.
As a Quins fan, I can only hope that the stereotypical myth that French teams don’t travel well proves correct. Castres may be doing only about as well in the French Top 14 as Quins are doing in the Premiership, but – like all French teams – they have a massive pack of ugly, aggressive, forwards and some quality mercenaries in the back-line.
The home team, whose early season form has been as poor as I can remember it in the past decade, is currently light in the fly-half department after Nick Evans’ understudy, Ben Botica, left the pitch from the ‘A’ League game versus Saracens with an injured shoulder; this week I learned from the fans’ unofficial website that he has had an operation for a dislocated collar bone and is reportedly out for three months.
Much of the creativity and tempo of a rugby game depends upon the scrum half and fly half. Here, inevitably, the omens are hopeful – at least in embryo.
We have Danny Care back at 9 after missing the Leicester game because his partner gave birth that morning to his first child and Nick Evans, who is getting back to something like his best – or, at least, the best he can do at this stage of his losing battle with Father Time, which fortunately for Quins is probably just about (still) better than the capability of 90% of his fellow 10s in the Premiership.
At the risk of disappointing my followers, I have no idea at all as to which team will prevail this evening. That’s the beauty of cup rugby – on the day, one one team can beat another. I’m just going for a couple of beers before the game with some pals and then probably for a curry in Twickenham afterwards.
Let’s just hope the rain stays away and we get an open, flowing game …