Munster land another tough Euro challenge

It may be the Rugby Champions Cup now, but the inaugural pool draw for the new competition will have elicited reactions that are all too familiar from the days when the tournament was known as the Heineken Cup.

Munster land another tough Euro challenge

The name, the trophy, the format, the seedings and qualification procedures have all been changed, but there were undoubtedly the same groans and sheepish grins on the back of proceedings which took place yesterday in the Swiss city of Neuchatel.

One thing everyone could agree on was that Pools 1 and 3 will see the majority of slugfests. Munster have been pitched into the first of those, Ulster the latter. Leinster, on the other hand, will be happier campers.

“Three handy teams,” was the tongue-in-cheek verdict of Munster’s new head coach Anthony Foley, who must navigate his way through a pool swimming with last season’s beaten Heineken finalists Saracens, ASM Clermont Auvergne and Sale Sharks.

The last of those, while an improving side, may be the least fearsome of the predators, having finished midway down the English Premiership while the French giants are an aging if still formidable outfit that has seen better days.

Saracens, who also lost the Premiership final last month, may make for the sternest task and there could well be a trip to Wembley for Munster’s Red Army if the fixtures fall right.

“We have picked up three of the best teams in Europe in our pool and, looking at the rest of the tournament, I think this is an even stronger draw than in previous years,” said Foley after yesterday’s events.

“We have six massive games ahead of us and we will be looking to them all. I’m sure there are a few teams who won’t be too happy about having Munster in their pool.”

Ulster may have been landed an even tougher ask. Already reeling from the shock departure of Director of Rugby David Humphreys to Gloucester, they now find themselves in pool three with back-to-back Heineken champions Toulon, Leicester Tigers and an improving Scarlets outfit.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” said chief executive Shane Logan. “With now only 20 teams in the competition, it makes it harder all round. I don’t think we have anything to fear.”

Leinster hooker Sean Cronin and chief executive Mick Dawson made respectful statements about Castres, Harlequins and Wasps, with whom they were billeted, but the reigning Pro12 champions have been afforded an easier route to the last eight.

Leinster failed to make it beyond the group stage two seasons ago. A home defeat to Northampton last December cost them home advantage in the most recent knockout stage and necessitated a trip to Toulon, where they were eliminated.

That still rankles.

“We were disappointed with ourselves last season,” said Cronin. “We work so hard to progress from a pool that included Northampton, Castres and Ospreys and then felt we let ourselves down in the quarter-final at Toulon.”

Their league form sets them up nicely this time around.

Previous European performances were ditched as a yardstick in deciding the seeding system for the new tournament, meaning Leinster’s league trophy counted for more than, say, Munster’s presence in the Heineken semi-final.

That left Leinster in the top bracket and Munster and Ulster below them.

Yet, with just five pools next year, there will be scope for three of the pool runners-up to join the five winners in the quarter-final stage.

Northampton Saints, Racing Metro and Ospreys will feel their Pool 5 could well supply one of those, given they will all meet Treviso.

Connacht finished one place and five points above the Italians in this year’s Pro12, but the stipulation that all Six Nations countries have one representative in the Champions Cup allowed Treviso entry.

For Connacht, that means a first season in European rugby’s second tier since 2011/12 and they have been entrusted with two trips to France and one to England, facing Bayonne, La Rochelle and Exeter Chiefs.

EUROPEAN RUGBY DRAWS

European Rugby Champions Cup

Pool 1: Saracens, Munster, Clermont Auvergne, Sale.

Pool 2: Leinster, Castres, Harlequins, Wasps.

Pool 3: Toulon, Leicester, Ulster, Scarlets.

Pool 4: Glasgow, Montpellier, Bath, Toulouse.

Pool 5: Northampton, Racing Metro, Ospreys, Treviso.

European Rugby Challenge Cup

Pool 1: Cardiff Blues, London Irish, Grenoble, FIRA 1 qualifier.

Pool 2: Exeter, Bayonne, Connacht, La Rochelle.

Pool 3: Stade Francais, Newport Gwent Dragons, Newcastle, FIRA 2 qualifier.

Pool 4: Edinburgh, Bordeaux-Begles, London Welsh, Lyon.

Pool 5: Gloucester, Brive, Zebre, Oyonnax.

Pool stage dates

Round 1: October (16-19).

Round 2:October (23-26).

Round 3: December (4-7).

Round 4: December (11-14).

Round 5: January (15-18).

Round 6: January (22-25).

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