Leinster face daunting task in Europe’s ‘Pool of Death’

Leinster’s failure to make the Guinness Pro12 play-offs was always likely to hurt them come yesterday’s European Champions Cup draw and so it proved, with the three-time winners being landed in a pool alongside triple champions Toulon, English runners-up Bath and Wasps.

Leinster face daunting task in Europe’s ‘Pool of Death’

“Great group,” said Bath coach Mike Ford, who must have secretly cursed the vagaries of a draw placing them in the predictably titled ‘Pool of Death’ alongside such heavyweights, given they entered the process as one of the top seeds.

Toulon will be expected to emerge into the last eight, but the other three will do well to make it beyond January even if Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip was painting a rosy picture of their season just passed and the challenge ahead.

“Last season was a huge stepping stone for this group of players, reaching the (European Cup) semi-final and pushing Toulon as close as we did, but that is no consolation,” said the Leinster, Ireland and Lions back row. “You ultimately want to reach the biggest stage.

“Hopefully after reaching a quarter and a semi the last two years we can go one better. The nucleus of this team is very young. The likes of Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath were all competing in European semis for the first time. That is brilliant experience for those lads.”

The dates with Wasps will see Leinster face some familiar faces in former players Jimmy Gopperth and Brendan Macken, as well as the inevitable excitement that will surround a meeting with Paul O’Connell.

Despite the stiff challenge, Bath head coach Ford says he cannot wait for the battle to commence: “European competition is the pinnacle of club rugby, and we’re really excited to have been drawn against three former champions. Each team presents their own challenges, and whilst we may be more familiar with Wasps, it means we know just how competitive they can be. We want to test ourselves against the best, and can’t wait for the challenge that awaits.”

Ulster have also been handed a stiff test, drawn with Saracens, Toulouse, and Oyonnax in Pool 1, but team manager Bryn Cunningham was reasonably bullish.

“I’m excited about it. It is a tough pool but every group in the Champions Cup is difficult. Toulouse and Saracens are two of the most famous names in European Rugby and Oyonnax will be a new challenge.

“However, having said that, there is no side in there that we are not capable of beating. We do need to manage resources with it being a World Cup year, but we have real quality in our squad and in Kingspan Stadium we have one of the best grounds in Europe, with passionate supporters that are second to none.

“I know that the Ulster fans will roar the team on in these games and with a bit of luck, I am confident that we can go well in the Champions Cup next season.”

Meanwhile, it’s a return to home for Saracens boss Mark McCall: “It’s going to be an interesting competition this season with the World Cup, but it’s a very exciting draw.

“I’ve been back to Ulster twice in the knockout stages and we’ve won both games and I know it is going to be an incredible atmosphere at the Kingspan Stadium with the developments they’ve made there.

“Toulouse have a very settled side, but will have a new coaching team. It will be interesting to see how they go without Guy Noves at the helm. We have learned you have to fight for every point in this competition, so we’ll have to roll up our sleeves.”

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