Tuesday 16 July 2019

Tough day for Munster, Leinster sitting pretty and ROG content - winners and losers from the Champions Cup draw

Johann van Graan, Leo Cullen and Ronan O'Gara.
Johann van Graan, Leo Cullen and Ronan O'Gara.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

The 2018/19 campaign has only just wrapped up and there's a World Cup hurtling rapidly into view, but already the Irish provinces will have one eye on Europe after learning who they will face in next season's Champions Cup.

The EPCR were kind enough to indulge those of us suffering from rugby withdrawals - it has, after all, been 96 hours since the season finally ended - by hosting the Champions Cup draw on an otherwise inconsequential summer Wednesday.

Instead, today marks a big moment in teams' plans for the coming campaign - in particular, for one Irish province down south.

Next season's tournament will be markedly different to the last few editions, as due to the World Cup it kicks off later than usual, with the first round of matches penciled in for just two weeks after the final in Japan, on the weekend of November 15/16/17.

The rejigged schedule presents a whole new range of issues that need to be dealt with, chiefly, what happens if Ireland advance deep in the showpiece tournament and players are only just back from Japan before being pressed into Champions Cup action.

But that is for another day - to recap, here is how the draw unfolded:

Pool 1 - Leinster, Lyon, Northampton, Benetton rugby.

Pool 2 - Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors, La Rochelle, Sales Sharks.

Pool 3 - Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath Rugby.

Pool 4 - Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys.

Pool 5 - Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier.

From an Irish perspective, each team will be feeling differently about their pool opponents looking ahead to next season.

Munster

Some of the positivity that emanated from the high-profile hiring of Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to Johann van Graan's backroom team has unquestionably been diluted. Not only do they have to face Saracens, defending champions, winners of three of the last four competitions, semi-final conquerors of Munster in two of the last three campaigns, but they have also been thrown in alongside Racing 92, who ousted them from the final four in between those Saracens shellackings.

More so than any other team, Munster measure themselves on how they perform on big European days - so one consolation from their pool of death is that European days don't get much bigger than the defending champions and the Parisian powerhouse.

A reunion with Simon Zebo will provide good copy, while Munster will at least fancy their chances of getting two positive results against the Ospreys. Still, Munster were already heading into next season under big pressure to end a trophy drought that is stretching into a ninth campaign. Now, van Graan and his new coaching staff will be expected to win while also having to plot their way out of a snake pit/shark tank/insert an equally foreboding location of your choice.

Munster can definitely qualify from their Champions Cup pool but the path to ending their trophy drought has just become substantially more treacherous.

Leinster

There's no point dressing this up any other way - Leinster have been gift-wrapped the pool of their dreams and their most straightforward assignment since being lumped in with Montpellier, Glasgow and Bath as defending champions in 2011/12.

Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and the rest of Leinster's staff and players will no doubt plan meticulously, professionally and ruthlessly for their pool matches, but they should be targeting an overall number one seed and the knockout stage rewards that brings.

There is reason to be wary, as Lyon and Benetton Treviso have improved hugely and Northampton are moving in the right direction under Kiwi Chris Boyd, but much like Saracens last season, Leinster need to stamp their authority on the pool early doors and put themselves in the frame to stay at the Aviva Stadium later in the tournament.

Ulster

Dan McFarland will be reasonably pleased with the hand he was dealt. Okay, so going to Clermont after their season-long absence from the tournament is like waking a gnarled ogre from his slumber but besides that, he will fancy Ulster's chances of getting an away win against either Bath or Harlequins, which could see them into a quarter-final if they hold serve at home. Having made a few more additions to a squad that is building nicely, Ulster are well placed to repeat last season's performance of a last eight berth.

Connacht

Andy Friend is faced with the second toughest draw for an Irish side bar Munster but after returning to the tournament for the first time since 2016/17, Connacht will be delighted to be back at the top table regardless. What's more, they will justifiably be confident of winning all three of their home games at the Sportsground. Toulouse, Gloucester and Montpellier form the opposition, with the newly-crowned French champions the only side to fear.

Their away form will need to be much improved from their previous Champions Cup campaigns, but they will be a great addition to next season's tournament.

Ronan O'Gara

O'Gara would have had a wry smile when Bryan Habana ensured La Rochelle avoided Munster in today's draw. The media would have collectively short-circuited like a malfunctioning robot thinking of the narrative possibilities a return to Thomond Park would have thrown up, whereas now O'Gara can compete in his first Champions Cup as a head coach free from that notable distraction.

What's more, the French side have been landed in a tricky but winnable pool. Exeter are domestically imperious but suspect in Europe, Glasgow's best player Stuart Hogg is now officially their ex-best player, having moved to their English pool rivals, and while Sale Sharks have invested heavily in more Springbok beef, O'Gara will be confident of outwitting Steve Diamond when the action kicks off.

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