IT WAS FITTING that the prelude to the draw for next season’s inaugural Rugby Champions including a montage of the various winners and heroes of the Heineken Cup, before we moved swiftly and abruptly on.
Ulster have landed in what appears to be the group of death, containing as it does French behemoths Toulon, as well as English powerhouses Leicester and Ulster’s fellow Pro12 side Scarlets.
Mark Anscombe loses key men in Johann Muller, John Afoa and Director of Rugby David Humphreys this summer, but the Kiwi has a highly-skilled group of younger players such as Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson ready to take the reins alongside more experienced heads like Jared Payne and Ruan Pienaar.
Toulon are still celebrating their recent Heineken Cup and Top 14 double, with new signings James O’Connor, Leigh Halfpenny, Mamuka Gorgodze, Romain Taofifenua and Gerhard Vosloo softening the blow of losing Jonny Wilkinson to retirement.
Richard Cockerill’s Leicester finished third in the Premiership this season, before losing a pulsating semi-final against Northampton Saints. England internationals like Manu Tuilagi, Geoff Parling and the Youngs brothers, Tom and Ben, will lead their charge.
The Scarlets make up a testing pool, with Simon Easterby still at the helm and hoping that talented players such as Liam Williams, Jordan Williams, and Rhys Preistland can begin to regularly impose themselves on European club rugby.
Over in Pool 1, Munster have been handed an equally tough test in being drawn alongside Saracens, Clermont and Sale Sharks.
Anthony Foley takes over with his own rich understanding of what is required to win high-profile European ties, but Mark McCall’s ever-improving Saracens will back themselves to emerge.
Clermont have a new management team in Franck Azéma and Jono Gibbes – who joins from Leinster as forwards coach – while the likes of Sébastien Vahaamahina, Jonathan Davies, Zac Guildford, Nick Abendanon, and Camille Lopez add a fresh energy to the playing squad.
With Morgan Parra remaining at scrum-half, the Auvergne-based club have a cool head to oversee what is likely to be a season of changes on the pitch.
Sale have been something of a surprise package under Director of Rugby Steve Diamond and head coach Bryan Redpath. Danny Cipriani has been re-invigorated at out-half by the northern club, while Nathan Hines joins from Clermont this summer.
In Pool 2, Leinster’s position alongside Castres, Harlequins and Wasps will perhaps draw less immediate attention, but there are dangers in those opponents too.
Matt O’Connor will have to find a way to halt ‘Quins free-flowing, ambitious attacking rugby under Conor O’Shea, while Castres were Top 14 finalists for the second year running recently.
The Tarn-based side have added Sitiveni Sivivatu, Johnnie Beattie and centre Thomas Combezou to their squad ahead of next season, while Rory Kockott is arguably the most accomplished scrum-half in Europe.
Pools 4 and 5 look weaker in comparison, although that impression may be based upon the lack of Heineken Cup history among those sides involved. Montpellier, Racing Métro, Glasgow and Premiership champions Northampton are all on major curves of improvement and are potential forces in the near future.
Toulouse, qualified as a Tier 4 side, will believe in their ability to advance from Pool 4 despite a weak 2013/14 season. There are potentially brilliant games littered across the five pools, while picking a winner at this stage is hugely demanding.
The Heineken Cup is gone, but the Rugby Champions Cup already looks like it may match the legendary European tournament’s thrill factor.
What are your thoughts on the opponents your province has drawn? Who do you see making up the quarter-finalists?
- Originally published 13.59