THE HEINEKEN CUP finally kicks back into life this weekend, with Connacht and Ulster both in action on Friday night. Munster and Leinster will carry the torch for Ireland on Saturday, and all four provinces are desperate for a strong start.
Here are five players who could cause the Irish sides grief in the pool stages of the tournament.
1. Jonathan Pélissié
The Montpellier scrum-half has been one of the most exciting players to watch in the opening nine rounds of the Top 14 in France. Pélissié joined the club during the summer from Grenoble and announced his arrival with stunning performances against Toulouse and Clermont, scoring 31 points against the latter. Now 25, the goal-kicking halfback, who can also play at 10, has taken his time to come to the fore after first appearing in the Top 14 for Brive in 2008.
Having developed steadily over four seasons at Grenoble, Pélissié is now starting to fulfill his high potential. He possesses excellent vision and his pace means he is a real sniping threat around the fringes of rucks. With Montpellier drawn in Pool 5 against Ulster, we may be seeing his ability in two weekends’ time when Mark Anscombe and his men travel to the Hérault department.
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2. Niall Morris
Irish interest in the Heineken Cup always extends beyond our own provinces, but the Leicester Tigers will be of particular note as Morris’ reputation continues to grow. The former Leinster fullback/wing has started the season in sparkling form having been moved to his preferred position at 15. Morris was recently involved in the Ireland training camp at Carton House and will hope to get his first cap in the November internationals.
The 25-year-old possesses a languid running style that can make his pace deceptive, and he has an excellent leap when competing for the high ball. Morris is a creative player and his first instinct is to look for counter-attacking chances. Defensively, he is reliable and playing at fullback gives him the increased responsibility he deserves. Geordan Murphy made himself a legend at Welford Road, and Morris has all the tools to do the same.
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3. Camille Lopez
The Perpignan out-half will be hoping to cause Munster fans some grief over the coming months, as his club take on Munster in a Pool 6 double-header in December. Before that, the 24-year-old will be looking to orchestrate wins against Gloucester and Edinburgh in the two opening rounds. Lopez joined USAP during the summer, and his arrival has seen James Hook relocated to fullback. Lopez won his first international caps for France in June against the All Blacks.
The out-half is a play maker with a special vision for spotting holes in defences and gaps in behind them. His mixture of long passing, chip kicks and short pops are complemented by the ability to make a break himself. Lopez is far from a ‘natural’ athlete, but he plays the game with an infectious enthusiasm which can spark Perpignan into life. He is prone to off-days, and Munster will be hoping he suffers from a couple of them in the Heineken Cup.
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4. Billy Vunipola
Weighing in at around 130kg, the 20-year-old is a human boulder for Saracens, and Connacht will need to be very wary of his ball-carrying threat in the pool stages. Billy is the younger brother of Mako Vunipola, who made such an impact on the Lions tour during the summer. The younger Vunipola joined Sarries in the off-season after a remarkable campaign for Wasps at No. 8. He has moved to blindside since joining the undefeated Premiership leaders, but his power remains.
Vunipola won his first two England caps in June against Argentina, scoring one try. Those are likely to be the first of many for the explosive 6ft 2ins back row, who is part of the current England Elite Player Squad. Connacht’s tactics for stopping his dynamic running game are likely to focus around chopping him down around the ankles and hoping he doesn’t offload. He will be a gigantic handful in this season’s tournament.
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5. Eli Walker
There are more well-known names in the Ospreys squad, but it may be Eli Walker who poses the biggest threat to Leinster’s hopes of progressing to the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. His star has been on the rise since scoring five tries in 9 games for the Wales U20s over the course of two seasons in 2011 and 2012. Last season, he burst into the Ospreys first team, showcasing his pace and earning selection in Wales’ 35-man training squad for the 2013 Six Nations.
Untimely back and hamstring injuries meant he didn’t get a chance to earn his first senior cap, but a blistering start to the Pro12 for the Ospreys means Walker is likely to get another chance very soon. At 6ft and around 85kg, the Swansea native is not the biggest of wingers, but his speed, balance and evasiveness make him a constant danger. He will be aiming to add to the three tries he has already claimed this season against Leinster on Saturday night.
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Who else should the Irish sides be wary of in this season’s Heineken Cup? Are there more incredible talents out there ready to announce themselves this weekend and over the coming months? Let us know by leaving a comment.