Euro draw from hell for reds' new boss Anthony Foley
Published 11/06/2014 | 02:30
IF the last quarter-final line-up of the Heineken Cup was perceived as its strongest, then the pool stages of its replacement have set quite a standard first time out.
Losing four teams may decrease the pan-European feel of the European Rugby Champions Cup, but it makes the group campaign a pretty tantalising prospect.
The name has changed, the format has been tweaked and the trophy they're playing for is different, but next winter we can look forward to heavyweight clashes right from the off.
The broadcasters will decide the schedule in the coming weeks, with Leinster fans likely to have to fork out for BT Sports subscriptions, given they have first dibs on games involving Premiership teams and the Blues have drawn Harlequins and London Wasps.
Relief for them comes in the form of a manageable looking pool. Mind you, they'll get nothing easy, but when they cast a glance at their provincial rivals, they'll do so with a small sense of satisfaction.
Ulster, in particular, look to be in real trouble, while Munster have a serious task on their hands.
Connacht, meanwhile, are back in the Challenge Cup and could have been handed an easier draw.
So, what's in store for the provinces as they begin to plot for next year's competition?
Pool 1: Saracens, Munster, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Sale Sharks
Semi-finalists for the last two seasons, Munster face a task that looks daunting on paper, but they might have a little more room for manoeuvre than it looks at first glance.
"Three handy teams," was Anthony Foley's less than serious reaction to his first pool as head coach, but they know their territory here and, while negotiating their way out of the pool won't be easy, it is far from impossible.
Clermont are entering into the unknown after eight years under Vern Cotter and they'll have revenge on their minds when they come up against Saracens, who, having reached this year's final after years of improvement, will fancy topping the pool.
Still, Connacht and Ulster showed up enough weaknesses in Mark McCall's side this year to give Munster hope.
Sale may be enjoying something of a resurgence, but Steve Diamond's side look to be the whipping boys, so Foley will be looking for the schedulers to do him a favour and pit the French and English giants together for the December back-to-back encounters.
"We want to be playing in the big finals in May," Foley said.
"To do that, we are going to have to stop teams scoring easy points against us. We need to rectify that, especially when it comes to playing in the Champions Cup."
Munster's Heineken Cup
record v POOL opponents
ASM Clermont Auvergne: P5, W 2, L3; last met 12/13 semi-final
Saracens: P5, W4, L1; last met 12/13 pool
Sale Sharks: P4, W3, L1; last met 08/09 pool
Pool 2: Leinster, Castres Olympique, Harlequins, Wasps
It would be understandable if an audible sigh emanated out of UCD as Leinster got due reward for winning the Pro12 and gaining the top seeding that went with it.
Matt O'Connor won't admit it publicly, but the three-time European champions will fancy their chances of topping this pool, even if they face the French Top 14 finalists and two trips to London to teams who will present them with problems.
A return to the Stoop will conjure up memories of 'bloodgate,' but the English side have been cleaned up by former Leinster full-back Conor O'Shea and he'll relish a crack at the Irish province.
Wasps, who qualified through the play-off by beating Stade Francais impressively, are bound to take points off someone, while Leinster know how tricky Castres can be having played them twice this season.
Still, there's nothing to fear for the Pro12 champions, who will go through if they match their potential as they look to get back to the top of the European tree.
"We were disappointed with ourselves last season," Sean Cronin admitted.
"We work so hard to progress from a pool that included Northampton, Castres and Ospreys and then felt we let ourselves down in the quarter-final at Toulon. Leinster have a proud tradition in Europe and it will be a huge focus for us next season."
Leinster's Heineken Cup
record v POOL opponents
Castres Olympique: P4, W3, L1; last met 13/14 pool
Harlequins: P1, W1; last met 08/09 quarters
Wasps: P3, W1, L2; last met 08/09 pool
Pool 3: RC Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Ulster, Scarlets
It hasn't been a good few months at Ulster and the draw will do little to cheer them up at Ravenhill.
Off the pitch they are searching for a replacement for the man who is largely responsible for bringing them to a point where they can be considered among the European big guns, David Humphreys, while on it, Mark Anscombe must now plan for a pool that includes the team no one wanted to draw, Toulon.
The European champions will report at the starting line as favourites again, having lost Jonny Wilkinson, but gained elsewhere.
Ulster will hope the broadcasters step in and pair Leicester Tigers and Toulon in the December games, giving them a little breathing space.
However, Scarlets will not be an easy prospect either; the Welsh region have room to improve having beaten Harlequins in this year's competition.
With Humphreys gone and Johann Muller, John Afoa and Tom Court also taken out of their pack, Ulster's chance of making it out of the pool is in real doubt.
Ulster's Heineken Cup
record v POOL opponents
Toulon: Never met
Leicester: P6, W4, L2; last met 13/14 pool
Scarlets: P6, W1, L5; last met 08/09 pool
Challenge Cup Pool 2: Exeter Chiefs,
Bayonne, Connacht, La Rochelle
Connacht return to the second tier with expectations high for an improvement after Pat Lam's recent recruitment drive.
They could have had an easier draw if they'd gotten one of the FIRA-qualified teams from second-tier nations, but Bayonne and promoted La Rochelle look beatable, while Exeter Chiefs will be firm favourites to top the pool.
"We've been to Bayonne before and won, but we haven't played Exeter Chiefs in a competitive game, to my knowledge.
"We had a friendly against them a few seasons ago, but they have simply got better and better since they gained promotion," John Muldoon said.
"They've been in the Heineken Cup in the last few seasons and had to play against some of Europe's biggest clubs. They will be a massive test for us."
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP DRAW
Pool One: Saracens, Munster, Clermont Auvergne, Sale Sharks.
Pool Two: Leinster, Castres, Harlequins, London Wasps.
Pool Three: Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Ulster, Scarlets.
Pool Four: Glasgow Warriors, Montpellier, Bath, Toulouse.
Pool Five: Northampton Saints, Racing Metro, Ospreys, Benetton Treviso.
First round matches on Oct. 16-19
European Challenge Cup DRAW
Pool 1: Cardiff Blues, London Irish, Grenoble, FIRA 1 qualifier.
Pool 2: Exeter, Bayonne, Connacht, La Rochelle.
Pool 3: Stade Francais, Newport Gwent Dragons, Newcastle, FIRA 2 qualifier.
Pool 4: Edinburgh, Bordeaux-Begles, London Welsh, Lyon.
Pool 5: Gloucester, Brive, Zebre, Oyonnax.