Saturday 14 December 2019

Mark McCall wary of Toulon threat after Saracens handed tough Champions Cup draw

Saracens boss Mark McCall believes that heavyweight European Champions Cup pool rivals Toulon will have "extra hunger" going into next season.

Champions Cup holders Saracens face Toulon, Sale Sharks and the Scarlets in their group next term, with only the pool winners guaranteed a quarter-final place.

Toulon won three successive European titles from 2013-2015, which included beating Saracens in the final two years ago, and McCall is on red alert.

"Toulon have a star-studded squad who will have the extra hunger of not winning a trophy last season," he said.

"We have faced them in the final stages of the tournament in recent seasons, and we know how much of a challenge they pose.

"The Scarlets have made some huge strides under (coach) Wayne Pivac, and facing them at the Parc-y-Scarlets is always a test for teams in Europe, and having played Sale Sharks a number of times over the last three seasons - in both the Aviva Premiership and the Champions Cup - we understand how dangerous they are.

"Last season was an amazing campaign for us, but we know that the hard works starts now as we prepare for what promises to be another competitive season."

Exeter, beaten by Saracens in last season's Premiership final, are reunited with French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne - they met twice in the pool stage last term - while Leicester face recently-crowned French champions and last season's European runners-up Racing 92, who beat them in the Champions Cup semi-finals two months ago, as well as Glasgow and Munster.

"It is a tough pool - possibly the toughest in the draw - but that is what this competition is all about, bringing the best teams from across all the countries together," Leicester rugby director Richard Cockerill said.

"You have to be at your very best in every game in Europe, and you have to work hard for every single point. You don't get too many opportunities, so you have to make them all count."

Elsewhere, Wasps are in the same group as four-time European champions Toulouse, Guinness PRO12 title holders Connacht and Italians Zebre, with Northampton drawn alongside Leinster, Montpellier and Castres.

"If you looked at our group last year (Wasps were drawn with Toulon, Leinster and Bath), it was well recognised as the toughest pool out there," Wasps rugby director Dai Young said.

"But that also meant there wasn't much pressure on us because nobody expected us to get out of it. We did, and we enjoyed a really successful run.

"It may certainly look like an easier group than last season on paper, but we're not underestimating this. It's a tough group, and after last season there will be more expectancy on us to do well.

"We probably exceeded expectations last season. We've got to address every game this season like we did last season - with a real fear factor when we knew that if we didn't play our best rugby, we could get beaten."

The European Challenge Cup pool draw, which was also conducted at European Professional Club Rugby headquarters in Neuchatel, Switzerland on Wednesday, produced an intriguing battle of the west country, with Bath and Bristol drawn together.

Bristol, back in European competition following their return to the Aviva Premiership for next season, were grouped alongside Bath, Cardiff Blues and French club Pau.

Harlequins, last season's Challenge Cup runners-up, will meet Edinburgh, Stade Francais and Romanian side Timisoara Saracens in Pool Five, while Gloucester were drawn in Pool One alongside La Rochelle, Treviso and Bayonne.

Elsewhere, Worcester face a long trip to Russia with Enisei-STM in their group, along with Newport Gwent Dragons and Brive, and Newcastle line up in Pool Two alongside Ospreys, Grenoble and Lyon.

The pool stages off both European competitions begin in October, with the finals on May 12 and 13 next year at Murrayfield.

Champions Cup draw: Pool One - Racing 92, Glasgow, Leicester, Munster; Pool Two - Connacht, Wasps, Toulouse, Zebre; Pool Three - Saracens, Toulon, Scarlets, Sale Sharks; Pool Four - Leinster, Montpellier, Northampton, Castres; Pool Five - Exeter, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Bordeaux-Begles.

Challenge Cup draw: Pool One - La Rochelle, Gloucester, Treviso, Bayonne; Pool Two - Ospreys, Grenoble, Newcastle, Lyon; Pool Three - Brive, Worcester, Newport Gwent Dragons, Enisei STM; Pool Four - Cardiff Blues, Bath, Pau, Bristol; Pool Five - Harlequins, Edinburgh, Stade Francais, Timisoara Saracens.

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