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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 14:09 GMT

Sport: Rugby Union

Countdown to Europe

How the European groups pan out

Click here for a full list of European fixtures

With the World Cup over, rugby in the Northern Hemisphere now turns its attention to the European Cup.

After the failure of the home nations to progress any further than the World Cup's quarter-finals, a full strength European competition has been hailed, by many, as the obvious format to further improve standards in the European game.

[ image:  ]
England are back after opting out of the competition last year, when Ulster confounded the form-book to become only the second British side to take the crown.

And the competition received a massive financial boost when Heineken announced a four-year 20m deal - the biggest sponsorship in club rugby history.

Questions remain, however, as to whether a European Cup alone is enough to close the gap between rugby's big three (New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) and the Northern Hemisphere sides who hanker after their success.

[ image: Ulster's Justin Fitzpatrick celebrates last season's European victory]
Ulster's Justin Fitzpatrick celebrates last season's European victory
The English clubs, who already look set to reject any expansion of the Allied Dunbar Premiership for the second year running, are again at odds with Wales and Scotland.

The two Celtic nations have joined forces in eager anticipation of a full-blown British League. They may now have to wait longer than expected.

The European Cup, which begins on Saturday, features six groups of four.

France and England both have six teams each in the Cup. Wales have five clubs, Ireland three provinces, Scotland two Super-Districts and Italy two clubs.

Group winners and the best two runners-up will qualify for the quarter-finals, to be played on April 15th.

Group 1

Leicester, Cup runners-up to Brive three season ago, are surely the favourites to top Group 1 after winning the 1999 Allied Dunbar Premiership, thanks mainly to one of the most competitive packs in world rugby.

And with Will Greenwood back in the line-up the Tigers look a good bet to reach the latter stages of the Cup this time around.

Leicester find themselves alongside Glasgow, Leinster and Stade Francais, who were savaged in the semi-final last year by Ulster, despite being the then reigning domestic champions of France.

Group 2

With representatives from England, France, Wales and Italy, Group 2 looks certain to be a ferocious battle.

Bath, Swansea and Toulouse will be vying for the top spots, but do not underestimate Padova, who are unlikely to be the light relief that Italy's World Cup form suggests.

Swansea, the current Welsh champions, are a particularly strong outfit under the guidance of Welsh centre Scott Gibbs. But Bath, despite their recent form, will have been buoyed by the return of Ben Clarke from Richmond.

Group 3

The reigning champions Ulster find themselves drawn alongside Bourgoin, Llanelli and Wasps.

Whether Ulster can repeat their form of last year is uncertain. They will surely have their work cut out against a wonderfully unpredictable Welsh side, who ran out clear winners against Edinburgh on the weekend.

And Wasps, under the inspirational captaincy ex-England skipper Lawrence Dallaglio will also be a team to fear, especially on their home ground of Loftus Road.

Group 4

With Colomiers, Munster, Pontypridd and Saracens, the faint-hearted should beware of Group 4, whose teams emanate from some of rugby's most cauldron-like provinces.

Sardis Road is home to current Welsh leaders Pontypridd, who, despite losing a number of key players including Welsh legend Neil Jenkins, continue to upset the form book at the top of the Welsh-Scottish League.

Francois Pienaar's Saracens undoubtedly had a disappointing season last year and will surely be looking to put things right in Europe.

Sarries undoubtedly have the flair and the money to succeed. But how will they cope with Stade Selery and Thomond Park, traditionally the Galatasarays of rugby?

Group 5

Cardiff and Harlequins will throw up few surprises for each other in Group 5. Both are seasoned European contenders and know each other of old.

But add to them, Treviso and Montferrand and the penultimate group becomes very interesting indeed.

Cardiff have made no secret of the fact they want to win the Cup. And with Welsh duo Neil Jenkins and Robert Jones, at fly-half and scrum-half respectively, few would deny them a realistic chance.

With so many international stars, Cardiff will certainly await their trip to Treviso with relish, after Wales embarrassed Italy on home ground 21-60 in March this year.

Montferrand are undoubtedly the outsiders, while Harlequins will be hoping to continue the form they demonstrated at the end of last season when they stormed to six wins from their last seven matches to clinch fourth spot in the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Group 6

Last, but not least, is Group 6, with Northampton, Neath, Edinburgh Reivers and Grenoble.

As in Group 2, it provides a fascinating cross-section of rugby in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Saints have undergone a number of changes over the summer, with Samoan Pat Lam replacing Tim Rodber as captain and Welsh centre Allan Bateman coming in to further strengthen the three-quarter line.

Neath, as befits their image, will prove a traditionally tough fixture at home, while Edinburgh, back to full strength after Scotland's World Cup campaign, could yet upset the apple-cart if they gel early on in the competition.


November 19, 20, 21

Pool 1: Stade Francais v Glasgow; Leinster v Leicester.
Pool 2: Bath v Toulouse; Swansea v Padova.
Pool 3: Bourgoin v Ulster; Wasps v Llanelli.
Pool 4: Colomiers v Saracens; Munster v Pontypridd.
Pool 5: Cardiff v Harlequins; Treviso v Montferrand.
Pool 6: Northampton v Neath; Edinburgh v Grenoble

November 26, 27, 28

Pool 1: Leicester v Stade Francais; Glasgow v Leinster.
Pool 2: Toulouse v Swansea; Padova v Bath.
Pool 3: Llanelli v Bourgoin; Ulster v Wasps.
Pool 4: Pontypridd v Colomiers; Saracens v Munster.
Pool 5: Montferrand v Cardiff; Harlequins v Treviso.
Pool 6: Grenoble V Northampton; Neath v Edinburgh.

December 10, 11, 12

Pool 1: Glasgow v Leicester; Stade Francais v Leinster.
Pool 2: Padova v Toulouse; Swansea v Bath.
Pool 3: Ulster v Llanelli; Bourgoin v Wasps.
Pool 4: Saracens v Pontypridd; Colomiers v Munster.
Pool 5: Harlequins v Montferrand; Cardiff v Treviso.
Pool 6: Neath v Grenoble; Northampton v Edinburgh.

December 17, 18, 19

Pool 1: Leicester V Glasgow; Leinster v Stade Francais.
Pool 2: Toulouse V Padova; Bath v Swansea.
Pool 3: Llanelli V Ulster; Wasps v Bourgoin.
Pool 4: Pontypridd v Saracens; Munster v Colomiers.
Pool 5: Montferrand V Harlequins; Treviso v Cardiff.
Pool 6: Grenoble v Neath; Edinburgh v Northampton.

January 7, 8, 9 Pool 1: Stade Francais V Leicester; Leinster V Glasgow.
Pool 2: Swansea v Toulouse; Bath v Padova.
Pool 3: Bourgoin v Llanelli; Wasps V Ulster.
Pool 4: Colomiers v Pontypridd; Munster V Saracens.
Pool 5: Cardiff v Montferrand; Treviso v Harlequins.
Pool 6: Northampton v Grenoble; Edinburgh v Neath.

January 14, 15, 16

Pool 1: Glasgow v Stade Francais; Leicester v Leinster.
Pool 2: Padova v Swansea; Toulouse v Bath.
Pool 3: Ulster v Bourgoin; Llanelli v Wasps.
Pool 4: Saracens v Colomiers; Pontypridd v Munster.
Pool 5: Harlequins v Cardiff; Montferrand v Treviso.
Pool 6: Neath v Northampton; Grenoble v Edinburgh.

Quarter Finals: April 15.
Semi Finals: May 6
Final: May 27

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