Munster’s new-look brains trust will have little time to brace for their first intensive exam on the back of a Heineken Champions Cup draw in Lausanne yesterday which did the province few favours.
Paired initially with defending champions Saracens in Pool 4, the task for Johann van Graan’s side, which was ranked in the second tier of seeds, was only exacerbated when Racing 92 landed into the group alongside them.
Those looking for a positive spin could point to the fact that they did at least avoid Montpellier, Top 14 finalists only 12 months ago, and instead found themselves accompanied with Ospreys when the last slots were being filled.
Even then it makes for a daunting task for a coaching group that has undergone a major reshuffle with the
departures of Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery and the recent appointments of Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree.
“This pool is full of top quality sides and it will be a massive challenge,” van Graan admitted. Not least because the tournament will kick off just a fortnight after November’s World Cup final.
“It’s such a tough draw but that’s why it’s called the Champions Cup and that’s why we want to be in this competition, it will be a very exciting challenge for us and it is one that we are looking forward to.” Reasons to be cheerful? You could make a tenuous case for a few.
Ospreys, for instance, scraped into the tournament on the back of a fourth-placed finish in Group A of the PRO14 after a year slumming it in the Challenge Cup. All three of their opponents will be seeking win and bonus points there.
Racing, with Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan in their ranks, bring ambition and financial muscle on top of their frustration at being denied by Leinster in a final 13 months ago and by Toulouse at the last eight stage more recently.
Munster, though, have plenty of experience with them, winning three out of five recent meetings. They also performed well in the loss in Paris but less so when falling short at the last four stage 14 months ago in Bordeaux.
Saracens? That’s another step up again. Champions in three of the last four seasons, Mark McCall’s side won 26 of their 27 games during those campaigns and their other result was a draw away to Scarlets. Munster have fallen well short of them twice in semi-finals.
Meeting them earlier in the tournament will make for a new dynamic. Munster have rarely been found wanting in the pool stages in recent times and are unbeaten in 12 European games at Thomond Park.
Found wanting on the harder pitches of spring, the province has few equals when grinding out big wins through the darker winter months and Racing (twice), Toulon, Exeter Chiefs and Glasgow have all come a cropper in Limerick in recent times.
The looming shadow of the World Cup can’t be avoided in all this. Munster will have close to a dozen players on Irish duties in Japan, Saracens something similar with England while Ospreys will also be discommoded.
Only four Racing players have been called up to the French preliminary panel but the Parisians will lose more besides to events in Japan, Scotland’s Finn Russell and Fiji’s Leone Nakawara among them.
Ultimately, it is difficult to see two sides emerge from this pool, unless Saracens can be caught on the hop in much the same way as two years ago when they suffered a blip on the back of the Lions tour when so many of their players were involved.
Few clubs will provide as much raw material to the global competition as Leinster and yet the reigning PRO14 champions have had any fears eased no end by a draw which has offered up Lyon, Northampton and Benetton as opposition.
Leinster’s Pool 1 is, unquestionably, the easiest of the five pools. And by a stretch.
Ulster may have feared the worst when appearing under Clermont Auvergne in Pool 3 but the subsequent arrivals of Harlequins and Bath into the same neighbourhood gives Dan McFarland’s side every chance of making the knockout stages.
Connacht, back in the Champions Cup this year, will have to travel twice to France for tests against Top 14 champions Clermont and Montpellier. Gloucester, third in the Premiership last season, complete that party.
All of which leaves La Rochelle who will operate under Ronan O’Gara’s watch next season now that the Cork man has been installed as head coach under Jono Gibbes’ director of rugby on the Bay of Biscay.
O’Gara could have found himself plotting the downfall of Leinster, Munster or Ulster had the drawn gone differently but instead finds himself contending with Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors and Sale Sharks. No small task for him there.