THE BEST RUGBY WEEKEND OF THE YEAR?
It traditionally serves up epic contests and this year, the competition's 15th, is no different.
The European Cup has had an incredible impact on a sport already immensely proud of its social brotherhood, stretching hands of friendship across the sea, to buy you a beer, lend you a mattress, whoever your team may be.
In 1995, as an ignorant Englishman, I would have been hard-pressed to locate Munster. A whiskey distillery in Cork was the only cultural well I had drunk from until then. It was the Heineken Cup that brought the force of nature that is Munster rugby to a wider audience. Limerick's Thomond Park is now on the list of sporting venues to experience before you die.
To watch the red army on the march to a European away game, even if their wretched camper vans nick all the parking spaces, is a sight to behold and any number of French towns and cities in the south-west, with rugby rivers running through them, are enough to make Bacchus and Epicurus kill for a pair of tickets.
Whisper who dares, but Munster are now only the second best rugby province in Ireland. The city slickers from Dublin, Leinster, only went out and got a pack worthy of the name, bolted on the Aussie warrior that is Rocky Elsom and won the Heineken Cup last season.
Elsom may have returned to Australia to play Super 14 rugby with the Brumbies (surely it is only a matter of time before his home city of Melbourne draws him to the new Rebels franchise), but he has left a legacy. Notably in Leinster and Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip, now a young rugby player of massive influence and authority.
But the first Heineken quarter-final on Friday night in Dublin between Leinster and French side Clermont will be one and lost further forward in the front-row. Clermont have one of the finds of the Six Nations in France Grand Slam prop Thomas Domingo, five foot seven inches of pocket Hercules in the scrum and alongside him Argentine hooker Mario Ledesma, 37 years young next month and Georgian prop Davit Zirakashvili, who England wish had unearthed a granny from Haywards Heath.
Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Jamie Heaslip may be the stellar (or Guinness) names in the Leinster line-up, but tomorrow night will be all about Stan Wright, John Fogarty and CJ Van der Linde.
The European Cup is nothing if not cosmopolitan as a Cook Islander, an Irishman and a South African, lock front-row horns, muscle and machismo with a Frenchman, Argentine and Georgian.
Let's hear it for the fat boys as a sensational weekend of Heineken Cup action begins.