The draw for the 2019/2020 pool stages of the Heineken Champions Cup took place on Wednesday as clubs from across Europe learned their fate as to who stands between them and the knockout stages of the competition.
It’s a special year for the Irish teams as it’s the first time that all four provinces have qualified for Europe’s premier club rugby competition since the 2016/17 season.
There are no shortage of talking points from the draw which we discussed yesterday including Simon Zebo’s return to Thomond Park as Racing 92 and Munster face off in Pool 4.
All of the competing Irish provinces reached the knockout stages last season and here we rank the difficulty of each pool which contains the Irish teams.
4. Leinster – Pool 1
As first seeds, Leinster were always likely to receive pool opponents that they would be confident of overcoming and that’s certainly what transpired as they have been drawn with Lyon, Northampton Saints and Benetton.
Lyon did reach the semi-finals of the Top 14 last season where they were beaten comfortably by Clermont Auvergne. However, although they will pose a challenge, when you consider how Leinster dismantled Top 14 champions Toulouse on two occasions last season, there is no reason why Leo Cullen’s side can’t secure back-to-back wins.
Elsewhere, it’s a lot more simple.
Northampton Saints finished fourth in the Gallagher Premiership but the gap in quality between Saracens and Exeter and the rest is quite large and this was reflected in the Saints’ 42-12 defeat to the Chiefs in the Premiership semi-finals. Leinster should have few issues overcoming the English side.
Finally, there’s Benetton who have qualified for the Champions Cup for the first time on merit. The Italian side were the surprise package of the PRO14 last season and although they secured a draw against a weakened Leinster side at the RDS in April, the PRO14 champions will have too much in the locker when they field their full-strength side.
3. Ulster – Pool 3
The preliminary draw which took place on Wednesday saw Ulster secure a spot in Tier 2 which helped their seeding and they were rewarded with a tricky but manageable pool which consists of Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins and Bath.
There’s no doubt that the Top 14 finalists will pose the biggest threat and the biggest focus for Dan McFarland’s side will be to claim some points in Belfast. They will also have a fresh reminder of what it’s like to travel to France as they were handed a heavy drubbing by Racing 92 in Paris last season.
Elsewhere, both Harlequins and Bath both have international quality dotted throughout their respective squads but there is nothing to suggest that Ulster don’t have it within their capabilities to secure wins home and away against these teams.
When you consider Ulster’s performance against Leinster in the quarter-finals last season and how they secured the same number of wins as Racing 92, McFarland’s men are well capable of getting out of this pool.
2. Connacht – Pool 5
Andy Friend’s first season in charge resulted in qualification for the PRO14 playoffs and next season’s Champions Cup. Their quarter-final loss to Ulster always meant they would receive a difficult pool and they will be up against it to get out of a group consisting of Toulouse, Gloucester and Montpellier.
The Top 14 champions will be favourites to top the pool and they will be determined to go one better and secure a final place after their semi-final loss to Leinster last season.
Connacht do have an interesting history with Toulouse, however. The western province defeated the French aristocrats at the Stade Ernest Wallon in 2013 and also secured a two-point win at the Sportsgrounds in 2016. They will harness this experience to produce something special but it likely won’t be enough.
Elsewhere, Gloucester secured a Premiership semi-final with Saracens where they put it up to the champions initially before their power game became too much and they fell by the wayside.
Johan Ackermann’s team is continuously improving but Friend and his staff will look at how Munster dismantled them on two occasions last season as evidence that Gloucester have their weaknesses.
Finally, Montpellier were the bottom seed to avoid. Although they were disappointing in the Top 14 last year, a team with the likes of Mikheil Nariashvili, Bismarck du Plessis, Louis Picamoles, Aaron Cruden, Francois Steyn and Nemani Nadolo needs to be respected, if not feared.
1. Munster – Pool 4
There’s always one standout pool of death and this year, it’s Munster who find themselves in the belly of the beast.
Neutrals will rejoice at the prospect of seeing current Premiership and Champions Cup holders Saracens, 2017/18 finalists Racing 92 and Munster battle it out in this incredibly competitive pool.
For the Ospreys, who are the only Welsh side in the competition, it’s going to be a tough campaign.
You can never write off Munster but if they do manage to get out of this pool, it could be considered one of their greatest achievements to date.
Munster will take confidence from their familiarity with their three opponents and they will hope the injection of new coaches in the form of Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham will develop their game further.
Johann van Graan’s side were undefeated at Thomond Park last season and that will need to continue in this competition, three home wins is a necessity to get out of this pool while they will likely need to produce something special away from home, too.
It’s not impossible but Munster will certainly be put to the pin of their collar.