Don't wait Toulon, back the French

  • By: Reece Killworth
  • Last Updated: October 10 2012, 21:55 BST

Our in-form rugby union expert is backing cash-rich French side Toulon to win this season's Heineken Cup.

Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon rate our best bet

With two winners and a runner-up from three Heineken Cup outright previews, this competition has proved to be a happy hunting ground for us recently.

And the same can certainly be said for Leinster in the last couple of years.

Back-to-back Heineken Cup successes mean they are potentially just nine matches away from cementing their place in history by becoming the first team in the competition's history to win it in three consecutive seasons.

That said, it's pretty hard to deny that after three victories in the last four years - the first time that's ever happened, by the way - the Dubliners have probably already secured their place in history.

But they still have plenty to motivate them.

Though Toulouse have not been able to match the Irish side's level of sustained success over a short period (they have never even won back-to-back titles), the French giants have one more Heineken Cup to their name.

And as with the knowledge of those recent successes in mind it's rather glib to say Leinster have been there, done that and got the T-shirt.

But it's certainly worth remembering.

They've lost just once in this competition in their last 18 matches; avenging a defeat by Clermont Auvergne back in December 2010 by beating them in Bordeaux in last season's semi-final to set up that all-Irish clash with Ulster.

They do, though, have a tougher draw in the pool stages this year than last with Clermont, Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs in with them.

Though Exeter have improved hugely in the last 24 months - they wouldn't be here otherwise - it would take a huge leap of faith to see them getting out of the pool (they're as big as 66/1 to win it), but they'll certainly be looking to inflict bloody noses on three teams who most will see as their superiors.

Clermont and Scarlets are both seasoned European campaigners, though, and the former in particular will have a score to settle against Leinster.

I don't think it's beyond the realms of possibility the Irish side will therefore come second in the pool and depending on the draw could then face two away trips before what would be an emotional homecoming to Dublin.

As they proved last season, they can win away in tough places, and given their class and experience it's understandable they are made favourites - but there's just enough niggling doubt in my mind to swerve them at 4/1.

The team I'm really sweet on are Toulon and, though sadly the 8/1 that was available when I began researching this preview has gone, there's still 7s knocking around which I think we'll get a good run for our money from.

It's remarkable when you look through the Toulon squad that they were not only in the Amlin Challenge Cup last year but also failed to win it.

And while Leinster are going for a third straight Heineken Cup title, that's more chances to win it than Toulon have ever had in their history - this is just their second entry into Europe's premier club competition.

The money of Mourad Boudjellal is the major factor in their rise to not just the Top 14 but the top table of European rugby - but money only goes so far.

And look at some of the players Boudjellal's cash means are available to former France coach Bernard Laporte - the Armitages, Bastareud, Botha, Bruno, (JM) Fernandez Lobbe, Giteau, Hayman, Jenkins, Masoe, Michalak, Shaw, Sheridan, Van Niekerk,'s a who's who of international rugby.

Of course, there are risks to throwing that amount of star names together; largely the collision of egos causing a squad riven with cliques.

But take a look at how they've started the Top 14 season.

Granted, they were beaten by Toulouse but that's the only blemish on their record in their first eight matches and they enter the 'H Cup' top of the table.

They are staying grounded, though, with forwards coach Olivier Azam leaving the players in no doubt by telling the players they "start from zero" now.

Theirs is, for me, the easiest pool - and that's borne out by the prices.

While Leinster are the next-shortest pool favourites at 8/11 (two others are 10/11 and two others odds-against), Toulon are 1/2 shots to top their group.

It's easy to see why, with Sale Sharks and Cardiff both in poor form and Montpellier having already lost - 32-25 - to Toulon on home soil this season.

The away game with Montpellier is the obvious banana skin (though French teams are traditionally poor travellers, for me there's a different psyche to the Toulon side) but it wouldn't surprise me if Toulon emerge unscathed from this pool and therefore looking good for a home draw in the quarter-finals.

From there, they've got a squad laced with knockout match-winners and in Jonny Wilkinson have a man who is being mentioned in despatches as a potential Lion and no longer has the distraction of England to contend with.

Despite all the money ploughed in by Boudjellal, they still have a reputation as nearly men and as such have more to prove than Leinster. But for me they shouldn't be three points bigger and as such we'll have a nibble at 7/1.

Elsewhere, Ulster look a big price at 20/1 given they reached the final last time out, but though they're stronger than last season I think they've got a job on to even match their efforts given improvements made elsewhere.

With no disrespect meant, it's my view they overachieved in reaching the final, but you can guarantee no-one will look forward to a trip to Ravenhill particularly after the thumping Leicester Tigers took their last season.

In beating Munster at Thomond Park they showed their class on the road and after five games of this season, they're top of the RaboDirect PRO12.

Against that backdrop, I wouldn't look to put people off an each-way dabble at 20/1 but I'd rather focus on the 6/4 they finish top of Pool Four.

Northampton Saints are the only real challengers I see here and though they're sitting top of the Aviva Premiership, I'd fancy Ulster to make a bigger impression at Franklin's Gardens than vice versa.

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