O'Gara reunion sugarcoats Munster's nightmare draw
The reunion with Ronan O'Gara grabbed the immediate headlines as the news from Neuchâtel emerged yesterday but the reality for Rassie Erasmus and Munster after the Champions Cup pool draw was made is that their poor season has had a costly, if expected, repercussion.
Newly-crowned French champions Racing 92, Glasgow Warriors and Leicester Tigers will make up Pool 1 alongside the two-time winners, who are paying the price for their sixth-placed finish in the Guinness Pro12.
Leicester and Glasgow are familiar foes for Erasmus's players, Munster lost back-to-back games against the English side in last season's pool games while the Warriors beat the Irish province in the Pro12 semi-finals in 2014 and the final in 2015.
The return of Munster and Ireland legend O'Gara to Thomond Park will be an emotional affair for both parties.
Racing's defence coach was an integral part of his side's push for European success in the last decade, but his job is now to stop his old province returning to the glory days. And he has also kept a keen eye on goings-on at his beloved home province.
"He will have them well briefed on us. They are the French club champions for a reason and they don't come bigger than that," Munster manager Niall O'Donovan said.
"We always knew we were in store for a difficult challenge, so to see opposition such as the Top 14 champions and this year's Champions Cup runners-up, Racing, Pro12 semi-finalists Glasgow Warriors and Premiership semi-finalists Leicester Tigers in our pool is no surprise.
"This is what this competition is about - it's the top 20 clubs in European rugby competing for the highest accolade so we didn't expect any less and every pool presents its own challenges. There are no easy groups in this, everybody is fighting to get to the knockout stages."
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Pro12 champions Connacht were among the top seeds in yesterday's draw and were rewarded with the kindest pool. However much he talked the Italians up, the presence of Zebre means that Pat Lam's side are in a three-way battle for a likely two places in the quarter-finals, with Wasps likely to top the group, meaning Connacht's clashes with a Toulouse side in decline will be key.
Wasps have recruited to replace Ulster-bound star Charles Piutau and George Smith, who has returned to Australia, but will miss both players dearly, while Toulouse are not the force of old.
Leinster, meanwhile, will be reunited with Castres who have been in two of their last three pools as well as Jake White's Montpellier and their old foes Northampton Saints in a tough, but eminently manageable pool.
Leo Cullen was talking the challenge up yesterday, but having faced Toulouse, Wasps and Bath last season he'll be privately confident of reaching the last eight despite the double-whammy of retirements he's had to absorb in the last week.
"The way the competition is structured now makes the pools very, very tight. We've three very tough teams in there, so it's what we expected going into it, that we were going to be pitted against three quality teams," the Leinster coach said.
"It sharpens the mind. Up until this point, you're focusing on improving guys' skill level, you're trying to get guys reconditioned to face into the challenges ahead in the season.
"So, having some teams you can focus on is always a good positive. Guys are working hard, when you come off the season having lost the final it focuses the mind. So guys are laying the foundation so that we can push forward at the end of the season."
Ulster have a tough task to reach the quarter-finals having been drawn against Clermont-Auvergne, Premiership finalists Exeter Chiefs and Ian Madigan's Bordeaux-Begles.
"Well, it's quite exciting really. Exeter did exceptionally well in the Premiership last year and Rob Baxter has built a strong squad who play a great brand of rugby. We also have them in a pre-season friendly, so we'll get to know each other pretty well," Les Kiss said.
"Clermont are one of the big teams of Europe and you've got to respect that; over there is tough and there's no easy games in France with Bordeaux either."
Champions Cup pools
Pool 1: Racing 92, Glasgow,
Pool 2: Connacht, Wasps,
Pool 3: Saracens, Toulon,
Scarlets, Sale Sharks
Pool 4: Leinster, Montpellier,
Pool 5 : Exeter, Clermont Auvergne,
Read more here:
- The five best Irish storylines from a very intriguing Champions Cup draw
- Champions Cup: Munster reunited with Ronan O'Gara while Connacht get a tough draw