With the World Cup in full swing, the GAA championship season firmly entrenched, and Ireland braced for a shot at a first series win in the southern hemisphere since 1979, yesterday’s shindig in Lausanne’s Olympic Museum was always struggling for air.
The resultant draw, as is the usual case, gave life to a plethora of opinions on the balance of the five pools in question but it was hard to find fault with the take of former England winger Austin Healey who partnered Dimitri Yachvili to pull the balls from the proverbial hat.
“Pool One, with 11 titles across it and four champion sides, (looks tough) but overall it is a really balanced draw. Anyone can come out of it. For the first time we haven’t really got a pool where you’re thinking, ‘oh my God, who’s coming out of that one?’”
Pool One finds reigning champions Leinster joined by Wasps, Toulouse, and Bath.
Healey wasn’t the only one to point to previous accomplishments in Europe as reason to suggest it may prove to be the most competitive.
The way the new format of the competition has gone, the pools are incredibly difficult,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen who will meet a Bath side now aided by his old assistant coach and teammate Girvan Dempsey.
History, though, counts for little.
Bath were champions in 1998 but they have made the knockout stages just once in the last half-dozen seasons. Sixth in the Premiership last season, they aren’t adding anything in the way of star power to their roster over the summer either.
Toulouse’s pedigree has faded of late, too. Challenge Cup participants last term, they were eliminated from the quarter-finals of the Top 14 play-offs and they are losing Gael Fickou, Yoann Maestri, Florian Fritz, and Jean-Marc Doussain this summer.
The arrival of Jerome Kaino will only make up for some of that.
Wasps are bringing in Lima Sopoaga and Brad Shields from New Zealand but Danny Cipriani, James Haskell, and Marty Moore are among those leaving. They seem to have reached a plateau as nearly-men after threatening to emerge as a powerhouse a few seasons back.
Munster’s task looks tougher.
Castres are just off the back of a league title and French international Scott Spedding will add to a squad that is, unusually for the Top 14, drawn overwhelmingly from ranks of players eligible to turn out for Les Bleus.
Exeter Chiefs lost their Aviva Premiership title to Saracens in last season’s decider but no team pushed Leinster harder than Rob Baxter’s over two games in December. Their wellbeing is reflected in the limited amount of players coming and going this summer.
Gloucester, by contrast, have been doing some notable business. Danny Cipriani, nominated for player of the season in England and newly restored to the national squad, arrives from Wasps, Gerbrandt Grobler pitches up from Munster, and Matt Banahan from Bath.
That said, Johann Ackermann’s side — who will no doubt be hearing lots about the ‘Miracle Match’ lost in Limerick 15 years ago — will be experiencing a massive step-up in class as they return to Europe’s top table for the first time in seven seasons.
Castres are the champions of France and will prove extremely difficult opponents as the top seeds,” said Munster coach Johann van Graan, whose side will also face Exeter in a pre-season game.
“The province have never played Exeter before but they have been one of the top teams in England for a number of years now.
“Gloucester very nearly won the Challenge Cup and they have added even more quality to their side for next season and it will be good to see Gerbrandt Grobler again so soon.”
Grobler’s reacquaintance with Munster is one of a number of subplots that extend to the Challenge Cup where Perpignan’s pairing alongside Connacht, Sale Sharks, and Bordeaux-Begles raises the possibility of Paddy Jackson playing in the Sportsgrounds next season.
Racing 92’s placing alongside Ulster (as well as Scarlets and Leicester Tigers) should also mean a return to these shores for Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo.
The final will be held in Newcastle’s St James’ Park on May 10.