West awakes to reality of 'dream' Toulouse tie
CONNACHT have been handed a baptism of fire in their first Heineken Cup season.
The Westerners were pitted against four-time champions Toulouse, Amlin Challenge Cup holders Harlequins, and their fellow English Premiership side Gloucester in a tough Pool 6 at yesterday's draw.
Champions Leinster were the big winners at Twickenham when they were drawn in what looks like the most comfortable group.
Joe Schmidt's men will face Bath, Glasgow and Top 14 surprise package Montpellier, who lost Saturday's French final to Toulouse.
Magners League winners Munster will also fancy their chances in Pool 1, where they will renew rivalries with Northampton and the Scarlets as well as perennial European strugglers Castres.
And after their breakthrough season last year which saw them reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 1999, Ulster face a tough battle to get out of their pool where they will play Leicester Tigers and Clermont Auvergne as well as Italian side Aironi.
Connacht coach Eric Elwood is trying to focus on the positives ahead of his side's maiden season among the elite of European rugby.
"This is an absolute dream draw for us in our first season in the Heineken Cup -- mighty Toulouse will be coming to Galway, you could not have asked for anything better," he said.
"The big one is Toulouse. Getting them into the Sportsground will be huge for us. We were all hoping to draw them, and we can't wait for the game.
"The lads will be very excited about this. They want to test themselves against the best and we are looking forward to the competition."
Connacht will be much changed next season, with 17 players leaving the Sportsground through retirement, transfers or release, and the replacements will have little time to find their feet with the first round of European ties taking place on the weekend starting November 11.
Key men like Jamie Hagan, Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr are heading for pastures new and their replacements -- Stewart Maguire from Leinster, South African hooker Ethienne Reynecke and Ulster pair Niall O'Connor and Mark McCrea -- will need to bed in quickly.
Harlequins will be a familiar foe for the Irish province -- they met in last year's Challenge Cup.
"Connacht are old favourites with us and we know just how tough it is to go to Galway," said Quins director of rugby and former Ireland full-back Conor O'Shea.
"We know Gloucester very well and how difficult they are to beat, and Toulouse are the aristocrats of European rugby -- they boast the best record in the tournament and it will be fantastic to face them again.
"It was great winning the Amlin Challenge Cup last season and the experiences of beating Wasps, Munster and Stade Francais in the knock-out stages will stand us in good stead on our return to the Heineken Cup."
Munster manager Shaun Payne was far from over the moon with his side's draw, but he reckons it could have been worse.
"It is by no means an easy pool, but if you look through all the pools there are one or two that might be perceived as more difficult than ours," the South African said. "In the past, there seemed to be one or two pools that appeared easy for maybe the top teams, but for next season I think a lot of the teams are a lot closer. Tigers, Clermont and Ulster will be a very difficult one.
"Northampton are a team that's improving, so where they will be next season nobody knows. Castres did very well in the Top 14, they are obviously very difficult at home but always interesting to see how they travel and Scarlets are a young team that's improving every year.
"It is a very tricky pool for us, but it's what we expect out of this tournament.
"There are no easy draws left for anyone with the exception maybe of drawing an Italian team, but even they are getting better and Treviso particularly are capable of getting results nowadays."
Meanwhile, Dublin looks set to host the 2013 European Cup final -- an announcement will be made at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. The city last hosted the final in 2003, when Toulouse beat Perpignan.