Sunday 23 October 2016

The five best Irish storylines from a very intriguing Champions Cup draw

Published 29/06/2016 | 15:12

A lengthy World Cup season has only just wrapped up but already the structures are being put in place for the year ahead.

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The provinces are already back in pre-season - minus their internationals, who are enjoying a well earned break - and today saw the Champions Cup pool draw for 2016/17.

Champions Cup: Munster reunited with Ronan O'Gara while Connacht get a tough draw

With four Irish teams involved this year, there is plenty to look forward to - here are five of the best storylines ahead of the new season.

Munster v Ronan O'Gara

Munster have a tough pool but it could have been worse, with Clermont, Toulon and Saracens all avoided. However, Glasgow, Leicester and Racing 92 makes for a difficult path to the knockout stage, and the Parisians will be a particularly interesting assignment for the southern province.

Since retiring from rugby in 2013, Munster legend Ronan O'Gara has been an assistant coach with Racing, progressing promisingly with each year.

Initially hired as a kicking coach, he has since added the team's defensive duties to his coaching portfolio and the move paid dividend this year, with Racing winning the Top 14.

O'Gara has been touted as a future Munster coach, and fans of the province will get to see how his team operates up close this season.

The battle of Sexton's understudies

Given how stellar Johnny Sexton's play has been for a number of seasons, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan have really just been fighting for the chance to sit behind him on the bench.

Madigan has generally won that battle, but there has been a significant shift in the last few months. Jackson established himself as an international quality ten with an assured series in South Africa this summer, and with Madgian gone to Bordeaux, it could be the Ulster out-half's chance to nail down that back-up role.

Today's Champions Cup draw pit Ulster against Exeter, Clermont and Bordeaux, so Joe Schmidt will get the opportunity to see two of his charges go head-to-head in a pressurised set of games, which should make for riveting viewing.

Connacht welcome the big guns to Galway

Okay, big guns plus Zebre. The westerners reward for winning the Pro12 was a group with the Italian minnows, Wasps and Toulouse. That is a pretty good result for Pat Lam's men. The English side are one of Europe's most devastating attacking teams but the French kingpins are not the team they were under Guy Noves.

If Connacht replicate last season's performances, they should be hopeful of making the Champions Cup knockout stages. Their previous battles with Toulouse have been very memorable - an away win on French soil in 2014 kickstarted Lam's western revolution.

Ulster will be up against it - even with their reinforcements

No Irish team has recruited as strongly as the northern province ahead of next season - All Black Charles Piutau and Springbok Marcell Coetzee are formidable acquisitions.

The South African flanker will miss part of the season with injury, but this fresh sprinkling of overseas talent to go along with the team's homegrown stars will make Ulster an interesting prospect in Europe.

Unfortunately for Les Kiss, Ulster's aforementioned pool will be very difficult to get out of.

Leinster have a chance to reassert themselves on the European stage

A shocking domestic campaign in Matt O'Connor's last year saw Leinster suitably punished when it came to their European draw last season, so it is only fair that an improved showing under Leo Cullen was rewarded with a kinder group this time around.

Montpellier, Northampton and Castres isn't a gimme of a draw, but it is the best that Leinster could have hoped for and they were in dire need of some good news after Luke Fitzgerald's retirement and Robbie Henshaw's knee injury.

Add that to the departures of Eoin Reddan, Ben Te'o and Ian Madigan, and Leinster will be shorn of a lot of marquee backs next season, so it is a good thing for them that they weren't grouped with some of Europe's superpowers.

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