Difficult European path ahead for Irish sides after Champions Cup draw
With less teams competing in the new European format, the draw for the inaugural Rugby Champions Cup was always going to be difficult. Today was confirmation of the challenge that lies in wait.
Based on last year’s Heineken Cup, Munster have been handed the most difficult pool from an Irish perspective, though Mark Anscombe and Matt O’Connor might argue otherwise.
In his first season in charge Anthony Foley, so often a Heineken Cup hero with the province, will have to negotiate Premiership sides Saracens and Sale as well as European foes Clermont Auvergne.
Saracens will be out to right the wrongs of the season just gone, though reaching European and domestic finals is hardly a poor season. Mark McCall will hope that they won’t take the bridesmaids tag from their fellow Pool 2 opponents Clermont.
Both of those away trips will be daunting for Foley’s charges, and indeed Sale will be no soft-touch.
The Sharks defeated Munster at home in 2005 en route to the Red Army finally landing the Holy Grail and while the Salford-based team are not the team they were then, their defence in particular is the cornerstone of their game plan. They could be a tough nut to crack, though failure to claim home and away success could be curtains for progression from Foley's perspective.
Leinster coach Matt O’Connor will be quickly putting Rabo Direct silverware to the back of his mind as he concentrates on two trips to London and a re-union with Castres. The French side were beaten home and away last season, but as Sean Cronin alluded to after the draw, they were far more difficult to turn over on their home patch.
Wasps made it after a play-off victory over Stade Francais, though Harlequins are likely to provide the sternest challenge.
Conor O’Shea has turned the club into a competitive side capable of scintillating performances on any given day. They lost their opening three games last year before narrowly missing out on the knock-out stages, while they were overwhelmed by Munster the previous season. Question marks remain on their temperament on the big day, but with a sprinkling of English internationals they will be brimming for a tilt on the big prize.
After last year’s disappointment, losing at home to Saracens after an early red card to Jared Payne, Ulster will have it all to do to atone next season.
Back-to-back champions Toulon will provide the strongest opposition possible, while Leicester yet again are landed in the same group.
In the final Heineken Cup campaign, Ulster managed to defeat the Tigers in the opening game while a Ruan Pienaar-inspired performance helped the visitors to a deserved three point victory at Welford Road.
The clashes between the two could decide runners-up spot, though Scarlets may have something to say about that. The Welsh side tend to be inconsistent in Europe, but as their success at The Stoop last season proved, they are more than capable of an upset.
Next season promises to be a real test of Irish mettle in the new world of European rugby.