Fan reaction suggests Munster’s task in getting out of a group that includes Top 14 surprise champions Stade Francais, old rivals Leicester Tigers and Benetton Treviso is certainly within their capabilities.
But Foley won’t be taking anything for granted after his side failed to qualify for the knockouts last season and then ended the season in further disappointing fashion when losing the PRO12 final to Glasgow Warriors.
“We have learnt a lot of lessons from last season’s campaign and most recently in defeat in the PRO12 final; next season we hope to come back better and stronger for it.
“Obviously going out in the pool stages last season was a tough one to take and we don’t want to be in that position again next year. Getting results at home and especially away is a tough challenge for any side in this competition and getting home wins is essential.
“There’s quality right across our pool again next season. We now have to prepare for the reigning Top 14 champions. Clermont taught us a lesson on just how formidable the Top 14 sides are in Europe both home and away last season and again we’ll have our work cut out for us with Stade Francais. It’s a long time coming, I think it’s over 10 years since we have met in Europe and they will be two massive games.
“Leicester Tigers are a team that we know well from the old Heineken Cup. We’ve shared some big occasions together although it has been a number of years since we’ve gone to battle in competition. They’ll travel to Thomond Park knowing that the last time they played there they became the first visiting side to beat us at Thomond in European competition. It’s up to us to rise to the occasion both home and away.”
Nor was Foley discounting the Italian challenge. “Treviso are the side we’re most familiar with of late and it will be another physical and bruising encounter. It’s been a number of years since we have faced off in Europe. Since then we’ve seen first-hand in the PRO12 how they’ve improved, running Leinster and Ulster very close and putting three tries on us in Cork last season. We can’t afford to allow them do the same in Europe.
“Last season Thomond wasn’t quite the fortress they had become accustomed to so that will serve as a good motivation for us, to put that right. And it’s not just at home, we know how wonderful and dedicated our travelling supporters are so we hope to give them something to shout about on the road also.”
Meanwhile, Connacht coach Pat Lam enthusiastically greeted his side’s Challenge Cup draw. Reacting to the news that his side will meet Newcastle Falcons, Brive and Russian newcomers Enisei-STM, he said: “Very good draw, this year it is a massive year with the winner of the Challenge Cup automatically qualifying for the Champions Cup. We saw this year with Gloucester that you have to win your games and top your pool to get a home advantage in the quarter-finals.
“I am happy to be going back to Newcastle, and although there are no easy games, we can look forward with confidence. When you look at some of the other pools, particularly Pool 2 and 5, the quarter-finals will be difficult. Teams like Sale, Castres, and Montpellier, who have recruited South Africans, in addition to Pau, which has invested heavily this season with players like Conrad Smith, similarly London Irish. Certainly drawing a team like Enisei-STM is favourable.”
Lam may be happy with the teams his side must face – Brive survived in the French Top 14 by just a single point, while Newcastle were last but one in the Aviva Premiership, albeit way ahead of relegated London Welsh – but he will hardly relish the prospect of a trip to the depths of Siberia, although it is yet unclear where Enisei will play their first European matches in the EPCR competition, having played their qualifying matches in Sochi on the Black Sea.
Connacht, Brive, Newcastle Falcons, Enisei-STM.
Sale Sharks, Gwent Dragons, Castres, Pau.
Montpellier, Harlequins, Cardiff Blues, Calvisano.
La Rochelle, Gloucester, Zebre, Worcester Warriors.
Edinburgh, London Irish, Grenoble, Agen.