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Leinster facing tough pool

LEINSTER'S Leo Cullen is "mad keen" with the prospect of facing French champions Castres Olympique, Northampton Saints and Ospreys in Pool 1 of next season's Heineken Cup.

"It's a tough pool all round - all the teams are pretty evenly matched. You always have to beat the best teams to win the Heineken Cup," said Cullen

"The finals were only a few weeks ago and obviously Northampton reached the Aviva Premiership final, which is no mean feat. I also watched Castres cause a bit of an upset by winning the Top 14.

"We were massively disappointed not to get out of our pool last season. We came unstuck due to a number of factors but all the boys are mad keen to reach the knockout stage again - that is what it's all about for us.

"Last season we had to reassess - it was a new challenge for us in the Amlin Challenge Cup and the chance to win a trophy. Having the semi-final and final at the RDS was a real incentive and we had three great days in the competition.

"There was a great atmosphere in final against Stade Francais. It was a brilliant occasion that I will always remember, but there was still a sense that we wanted to be at the Aviva Stadium the following day."

The number one ranked club in Europe and three-time winners will have to cope with the relentless power and ferocity of a Castres scrum that wrecked Clermont-Auvergne and Toulon in the French semi-final and final, respectively.

Thankfully, the mercurial Castres coaching ticket of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers will take their skills to Racing Metro next season. They will also take players and it will be interesting to see how Castres transition from France to Europe.

The load doesn't get any lighter with the addition of English Premiership finalists Northampton Saints, the new club of George North, and Leinster's sometime nemesis The Ospreys.

Jonny Sexton, the new Racing Metro fly-half, will be thrown from the fire into the firing line against Heineken Cup losing finalists Clermont-Auvergne, Premiership semi-finalists and dangermen Harlequins as well as The Scarlets in what surely amounts to the 'Group of Death'.

Munster have been saddled with a manageable group of foes in a growing Gloucester, Catalan club Perpignan and fellow Pro12 League contenders Edinburgh.

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe will face increasing pressure to deliver silverware in 2014. He won't find it easy to overcome English champions Leicester Tigers, Montpellier and an improving Benetton Treviso in Pool 5.

Somehow Connacht were listed as a Tier-3 club. They benefitted from this by being drawn with Italian minnows Zebre to soften the cough from the inclusion of Toulouse and Saracens in Pool 3.