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Leinster the big winners as Munster face a formidable task

Connacht can look forward to some big European nights in Galway when the Champions Cup returns in November.

FILE MUNSTER’S DRAW under the dictionary definition of ‘Pool of Death.’

As soon as the seedings were confirmed at the start of the week, Munster — in Tier 2 — were always facing into a tough route to Marseille, but nobody could have quite envisaged just how brutal the draw was going to be.

Munster are drawn out Munster were drawn in Pool 4. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In Saracens, Racing 92 and the southern province, Pool 4 contains last year’s winners, the finalists from the year before that and the semi-finalists from the last two seasons, as well as Ospreys, the only Welsh side in the competition.

“Racing, Saracens and Munster in the same pool looks heavy,” Dimitri Yachvili, drawing the balls in Switzerland, remarked. 

It’s hard to remember a European pool as stacked as that and certainly, this campaign, starting later than usual on the second weekend of November, will provide a firm appraisal of Munster’s health under Johann van Graan. 

There are so many piquant sub-plots set to play out in Pool 4, not least the return of Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan to Thomond Park with Racing, but Munster have never shied away from doing things the hard way and that’s exactly what they’ll have to do next season.

Van Graan’s side won’t fear anyone at their Limerick citadel, and not without reason, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ll need to go to two of the toughest away venues in the competition — Allianz Park and La Défense Arena — and get results. 

Facing into a renewal of battle lines with two familiar foes in Sarries and Racing, if Munster can come through a formidable assignment and reach a record 12th Champions Cup quarter-final, there is no doubt they will have earned it.

“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,” van Graan reacted. “It will be a very exciting challenge for us and it is one that we are looking forward to.”

An exciting challenge lies ahead for the South African, his players and new coaches Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham. 

Back in the top-tier of European rugby after a two-year gap, today’s draw will have further whetted the appetite of Connacht fans ahead of next season.

Jack Carty 22/1//2017 Connacht and Toulouse are set to renew their rivalry. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Andy Friend’s side can look forward to a number of big European nights in Galway next term, after being paired in Pool 5 with four-time winners Toulouse, Gloucester and Montpellier. 

Connacht are no strangers to Toulouse, of course, and having met the Top 14 giants in three previous Champions Cup pool campaigns, will hold no fear coming up against the French champions. 

The draw will revive memories of famous wins over Toulouse at Stade Ernest-Wallon in December 2013 and then three years later at the Sportsground in 2016 for the Connacht squad and support base, who will hope the latest instalments of this European rivalry are as special. 

Most encouraging, however, from a Connacht perspective is that their pool is very negotiable, with second-seeds Gloucester flattering to deceive in Munster’s group last year, while finishing some way behind Saracens and Exeter in the Premiership. 

The province and English outfit have previous, too, having met several times down through the years. Most recent was the Challenge Cup quarter-final in Galway in March 2018, which the visitors won 33-28.

Now under Friend’s guidance, and off the back of a third-place finish in Conference A of the Pro14, Connacht have made positive strides since then and have recruited strongly this summer.

One of the new signings, prop Paddy McAllister, will make an instant return to Kingsholm to face his former employers, as Connacht go in search of qualification for a first-ever Champions Cup quarter-final.  

Leinster, meanwhile, are undoubtedly the big winners, having been paired with Lyon, Northampton Saints and Pro14 rivals Benetton in Pool 1. 

A view of Pool 1 of the Heineken Champions Cup draw Leinster are in Pool 1. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Leo Cullen’s side were placed in Tier 1 as one of the three domestic champions and reaped the rewards with a favourable draw, opening up their path to the knockout stages and a third successive final appearance.

Lyon, who came third in the Top 14 last season but lost all six Champions Cup pool games, was by far the easiest draw from Tier 2, while the Saints return to the top-tier after a fourth-place Premiership finish.

Benetton will arguably provide Leinster will the stiffest test in Pool 1 as their resurgence under Kieran Crowley continues apace, with the Italians earning a win and draw on their last two visits to the RDS in the Pro14.

That being said, Leo Cullen’s side should have no real difficulty navigating their way through the pool stages and will be strong contenders to emerge as one of the top seeds, thereby setting themselves up for home advantage in quarter and semi-finals.

The four-time winners will be desperate to reclaim the crown they lost to Saracens in Newcastle last month when the competition returns in November.   

“We have seen over the last few years just how difficult it is to compete in this competition and as always the first priority will be to get out of our pool and doing that in Pool 1 will not be easy,” Cullen insisted. 

“It’s a very competitive pool but we very much look forward to the challenge that it presents in particular in a World Cup season.”

After a progressive first season under Dan McFarland, Ulster will square up against Challenge Cup winners Clermont, Harlequins and Bath next season.

Billy Burns The Burns brothers are set to go head-to-head in Europe. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The northern province, as a second seed, were boosted when placed in Tier 2 during the preliminary draw and McFarland’s side consequently avoided a much tougher challenge than they would have if in Tier 3.

Ulster did the double over English side Quins during the 2017/18 pool stages, memorably grinding out a hard-fought win at the Stoop in snowy conditions, before backing it up with a bonus-point victory in Belfast a week later.

A match-up with Bath will also see Ulster 10 Billy Burns go up against his older brother Freddie, in what will be the province’s first trip to the Rec since 2010, when the late Nevin Spence scored a memorable try in a 26-22 win. 

Top 14 runners-up Clermont will be favourites to win Pool 3 but Ulster, having reached the quarter-finals for the first time since 2014 back in March, where they pushed Leinster all the way, will be expected to build on the progress they made last year. 

McFarland has made some excellent signings, notably Jack McGrath, Sam Carter and Matt Faddes, ahead of the 2019/20 campaign and the challenge now for Ulster is to take that next step. 

A view of the Heineken Champions Cup draw Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

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Ryan Bailey

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