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Wednesday, 9 October, 2002, 01:44 GMT 02:44 UK
Who can stop the Tigers?
Leicester players celebrate with the Heineken Cup in Cardiff
Will Leicester be celebrating again next May?

Leicester must negotiate a tough opening assignment at Neath as they launch their bid for a third consecutive Heineken Cup crown.

But even if the 'Welsh All Blacks' can tame the Tigers in their own intimidating home at The Gnoll, it is hard to envisage the champions not reaching the knock-out stages.

With Italian lightweights Amatori & Calvisano and French debutants Beziers making up pool one, Dean Richards' side should still be in the quarter-final shake-up.

  Previous finals
1996: Toulouse 21-18 Cardiff
1997: Brive 28-9 Leicester
1998: Bath 19-18 Brive
1999: Ulster 21-9 Colomiers
2000: Northampton 9-8 Munster
2001: Leicester 34-30 Stade Francais
2002: Leicester 15-9 Munster

And as they have proved over the past two years, when it comes to one-off encounters in Europe, no side is refreshed by this tournament quite like Leicester.

Gloucester, Stade Francais, Llanelli and Munster have all come agonisingly close to toppling the Tigers, but each time the English champions have prevailed.

But if Leicester's early-season form gives hope to the rest, who are the most likely contenders to be taking the Heineken trophy off their hands in Dublin next May?


Gloucester:

With their first silverware in 20 years secured with last year's Zurich Championship win, Nigel Melville's side are primed for more success.

Undefeated leaders of the Zurich Premiership, they approach their second Heineken campaign in fine fettle.

A formidable proposition at their Kingsholm fortress, their hopes of going all the way may rest on whether they can secure a home quarter-final.

But with trips to perennial contenders Munster and the French rugby hotbed of Perpignan at the pool stage, European glory may have to wait.

Previous best: Semi-finals, 2001
Key players: Phil Vickery, Andy Gomarsall
Prediction: Semi-finalists at best


Leinster:

Appeared capable of challenging Leicester last year after breezing into the quarter-finals, but failed to do themselves justice when it came to the crunch at Welford Road.

Have notched two wins against the Tigers in the competition though, in 1998 and 2000, and are capable of living with the best on their day.

Very few teams survive Friday night encounters at their daunting Donnybrook home in Dublin, and Lions star Brian O'Driscoll heads some potent finishing power.

Lacklustre early Celtic League form may prove an unreliable guide, and this could be the year they emulate Munster and reach the final.

Previous best: Semi-finals, 1996
Key players: Keith Gleeson, Brian O'Driscoll
Prediction: Potential finalists


Llanelli:

A side who tend to raise their game on the big occasion, the Scarlets again appear the best-equipped Welsh side to sustain a credible challenge.

Llanelli captain Scott Quinnell lifts the Welsh/Scottish League trophy
Quinnell would love to get his hands on another trophy

A power-packed eight led by indomitable Lion Scott Quinnell guarantees plenty of possession, and Stephen Jones has one of the deadliest boots in the business.

Llanelli have rivalled Munster in the hard luck stakes in recent years, twice falling to last-gasp penalties in semi-final tussles with Northampton and Leicester.

But if Gareth Jenkins' side can find a greater cutting edge behind the scrum, then those experiences may spur them into the final this time.

Previous best: Semi-finals, 2000 and 2002
Key players: Scott Quinnell, Stephen Jones
Prediction: Potential finalists


Munster:

But for a crafty flick of Neil Back's hand, Ireland's Euro fighters might have already been supping heartily from the Heineken Cup.

But even allowing for the Leicester flanker's blatant act of professionalism in last year's final, it appeared Munster's tank had run dry.

The retirement of veteran forwards Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy may be felt in a ferocious pool that also includes Gloucester and Perpignan.

But a proven ability to win in hostile environments, and the fact they remain almost impregnable at their Thomond Park home in Limerick, ensure they remain tough opponents.

Previous best: Finalists, 2000 and 2002
Key players: Anthony Foley, Rob Henderson
Prediction: Quarter finalists


Northampton:

The champions of two years ago slumped miserably in their defence of their trophy, and similarly failed to get out of their pool last season.

Munster centre Rob Henderson shouts at team-mates during last year's final
Henderson is central to Munster's hopes

But the improvement shown since Wayne Smith took the coaching reins should be reflected in a stronger challenge this time.

It may be a much-changed Saints side from the one that lifted the trophy, but a hard core of seasoned internationals and southern hemisphere strongmen remain.

If they get off to a good start against Ulster and top an open-looking pool, also featuring Cardiff and Biarritz, another final may beckon.

Previous best: Winners, 2000
Key players: Andrew Blowers, Matt Dawson
Prediction: Semi-finals


Toulouse:

The aristocrats of the French game have seen their reputation slide recently after reaching the semi-finals or better in four of the first five years.

Failure to get beyond the group stage for the past two years, and greater challenges on the domestic front, makes a strong Heineken showing imperative this year.

But with exciting youngsters, such as Clement Poitreneau and Frederic Michalak, backed up by some experienced campaigners, they remain a potent brew.

Question marks remain up front, but if the backs fire, and they emerge from another open group on top, the rest better watch out.

Previous best: Winners, 1996
Key players: Frederic Michalak, Cedric Heymans
Prediction: Potential winners


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EUROPEAN STATISTICS
See also:

30 Sep 02 | European
25 May 02 | European
19 May 01 | Heineken Cup
Links to more European stories are at the foot of the page.


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