Clermont double-header key to Munster ambition

Potentially seismic back-to-back clashes with Clermont Auvergne await Munster in December after the fixtures for the new European Rugby Champions Cup were confirmed yesterday.

The southern province — who have Anthony Foley leading an all-indigenous quintet of new coaches — haven’t been top dogs in Europe since 2008 when Foley was still a player, coming unstuck at the hands of French opposition in the semi-finals of the last two Heineken Cups.

The new, slimmed-down Rugby Champions Cup has kept largely the same fixture scheduling setup as its predecessor, with most clubs’ ambitions set to be made or broken during those back-to-back ties in December. The five pool winners plus the three best runners-up will qualify for the quarter-finals.

Munster have been handed arguably the toughest draw in Pool 1, where they will travel to Sale Sharks in round one on Saturday, October 18 before hosting last season’s beaten finalists Saracens under the Friday night lights at Thomond Park on October 24.

Rounds three and four will take place over the weekends of December 5-7 and 12-14 — with the Reds first hosting Clermont and then travelling to Stade Marcel Michelin, where the French side have lost just once in 78 games.

Pro12 champions Leinster begin their campaign to regain European supremacy they last held in 2012 at home to Wasps on Sunday, October 19 (5.15pm) before a tough-looking trip to last season’s Top 14 finalists Castres on Sunday, October 26 (2pm).

Wasps — who recently dropped the ‘London’ prefix to their name — were the last English side to win in 2007, but who haven’t qualified for the continent’s top competition since 2009. The Blues face Harlequins in their back-to-back fixtures.

Ulster will renew their rivalry with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road on Saturday, October 18, with the Aviva Premiership side sure to be gunning for revenge after giving up a 25-game unbeaten home record to the Ravenhill men back in January.

That secured a home quarter-final for Ulster but with a series of departures on and off the field, they face an uphill battle this season with champions Toulon visiting Belfast in round two on Saturday, October 25 before Ulster twice face Scarlets.

Connacht kick off with a home tie against La Rochelle on October 18 before going to Sandy Park to face Exeter a week later ahead of back-to-back clashes with Bayonne.

European Champions Cup fixtures

Round 1

Oct 17: Pool 1, Harlequins v Castres, The Stoop, 7.45pm

Oct 18: Pool 1, Sale Sharks v Munster, AJ Bell Stadium, 1pm; Pool 1, Saracens v ASM Clermont Auvergne, Allianz Park, 3.15pm; Pool 4 Glasgow Warriors v Bath, Scotstoun, 3.15pm; Pool 5, Racing Métro 92 v Northampton Saints, Stade Yves-du-Manoir, 6.15pm; Pool 3, Leicester v Ulster, Welford Road, 7.45pm.

Oct 19: Pool 5, Ospreys v Benetton Treviso, Liberty Stadium, 1pm; Pool 4, Toulouse v Montpellier, Stade Ernest Wallon, 2pm; Pool 3, Toulon v Scarlets, Stade Félix Mayol, 4.15pm; Pool 2, Leinster v Wasps, RDS, 5.15pm.

Round 2

Oct 24: Pool 1, Munster v Saracens, Thomond Park, 7.45pm

Oct 25: Pool 3, Ulster v Toulon, Ravenhill, 1pm; Pool 4, Bath v Toulouse, The Rec, 3.15pm; Pool 5, Northampton v Ospreys, Franklin's Gardens, 5.515pm; Pool 4, Montpellier v Glasgow Warriors, Altrad Stadium, 6.15pm; Pool 3, Scarlets v Leicester, Parc y Scarlets, 7.45pm

Oct 26: Pool 2, Castres v Leinster, Stade Pierre Antoine, 2pm; Pool 1, Clermont Auvergne v Sale Sharks, Stade Marcel-Michelin, 4.15pm; Pool 2, Wasps v Harlequins, Adams Park, 5.15pm; Pool 5, Treviso v Racing Métro, Stadio Comunale di Monigo, 6.15pm.

Round 3

Dec 5-7: Pool 1: Munster v Clermont-Auvergne; Sale Sharks v Saracens.

Pool 2: Castres v Wasps, Harlequins v Leinster.

Pool 3: Leicester v Toulon; Ulster v Scarlets.

Pool 4: Montpellier v Bath; Toulouse v Glasgow

Pool 5: Benetton Treviso v Northampton Saints; Ospreys v Racing Métro 92

Round 4

Dec 12-14: Pool 1: Clermont-Auvergne v Munster; Saracens v Sale Sharks.

Pool 2: Leinster v Harlequins; Wasps v Castres.

Pool 3: Toulon v Leicester; Scarlets v Ulster.

Pool 4: Bath v Montpellier; Glasgow Warriors v Toulouse.

Pool 5: Northampton Saints v Benetton Treviso; Racing Métro v Ospreys.

Round 5

Jan 16-18: Pool 1: Sale Sharks v Clermont-Auvergne; Saracens v Munster

Pool 2: Harlequins v Wasps; Leinster v Castres.

Pool 3: Leicester v Scarlets; Toulon v Ulster.

Pool 4: Glasgow Warriors v Montpellier; Toulouse v Bath.

Pool 5: Ospreys v Northampton Saints; Racing Métro 92 v Benetton Treviso

Round 6

Jan 23-25: Pool 1: Clermont Auvergne v Saracens; Munster v Sale Sharks

Pool 2: Castres v Harlequins; Wasps v Leinster.

Pool 3: Scarlets v Toulon; Ulster v Leicester

Pool 4: Bath v Glasgow; Montpellier v Toulouse

Pool 5: Benetton Treviso v Ospreys; Northampton Saints v Racing Métro

Knock-out stages

April 3-5: Quarter-finals

Apr 17-19: Semi-finals

May 2nd: Final at Twickenham, 5pm

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