Leinster land straightforward pool

HEINEKEN CUP champions Leinster received a relatively easy start to the defence of their title but there will be a sense of foreboding in Thomond Park and Ravenhill after yesterday’s pool draws for the 2011/12 campaign.

Joe Schmidt’s side face Bath, Glasgow Warriors and Montpellier in Pool Three while Tony McGahan’s men were drawn against beaten finalists Northampton, old rivals Castres along with Llanelli Scarlets in Pool One.

Ulster’s Pool Four is made up of Leicester Tigers, Clermont Auvergne and Aironi while Biarritz, Ospreys, Saracens and Treviso are in Pool Five.

Munster manager Shaun Payne remained upbeat with the outcome, admitting: “It’s not an easy pool, but maybe one or two others might be perceived as being more difficult than ours. The day is gone when there is going to be any clear easy pool in this competition.

“Northampton reached the final this season and could well have won it; nobody knows how far they will develop by next season.

“Castres did very well in the French championship, they’re obviously very difficult at home but it’s always interesting to see how they travel. Scarlets have a young team on the up, so it’s a very tricky pool for us.”

Munster’s senior squad forwards coach Anthony Foley admits the timing of the games will be a significant factor in determining how they fare.

“Yes it’ll be interesting to see how the fixtures fall. We normally get the English side first and last.

“The competition kicks off two weeks after the World Cup final and how lads come through that tournament, physically and mentally, will obviously have a bearing.

“Like when we played Northampton in the first round (09/10), Paul (O’Connell) and Jerry (Flannery) were just in their second game back and that was significant I think.

“So there’s loads of factors to be considered not least that we’ve landed ourselves in a very interesting group that will likely only provide one qualifier.”

Leinster’s chief executive Mick Dawson downplayed the perceived weakness in their group. He reasoned: “It’s not going to be easy; for instance, Glasgow have caused us problems in the past, particularly at Firhill, you don’t disregard the physicality and potential associated with that from Bath, and you certainly must pay due respect to a French team (Montpellier) who reached the final of their championship this year and were only beaten by a score.”

Ulster director of rugby David Humphreys admits the province face an onerous task but he remains confident of progression to the last eight.

“There is no doubt that this is a particularly difficult group. If you look throughout the competition, there are many teams that could reach the quarter-finals. Leicester finished top of the Premiership last season and Clermont finished fourth in the Top 14 so that highlights their quality.

“We know from our games against Aironi last season that they will be hard to beat as well.

“There is no doubt next season will be another step up for our players but we certainly have the ability to progress to the knock out stages once again.”

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