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Munster, beaten at the semi-final stage of the competition last year, will open their account in the 2004/2005 10th anniversary Heineken Cup in Thomond Park against the Parker Pen Challenge Cup winners, NEC Harlequins.

Leinster Lions under former Munster supremo Declan Kidney must travel to Italy for a joust with Benetton Treviso while Celtic Cup holders Ulster, who also finished runner-up in the Celtic League, will be in their Ravenhill stronghold for their opening game against Cardiff Blues.

Given that the first thing most people look for when the Pools are announced is where the Italian sides are, then Leinster supporters can be optimistic when they see Benetton Treviso in their group. Not that it will be an easy assignment but the history of the competition suggests that at least one side will come out of this group. Leinster play the Italians away in the first round and it's a situation new coach Declan Kidney will be quite happy with - an away game; none of the pressure of being at home and against an opposition that will be tasty enough on their own patch. Then of course there is the factor that Leinster play their last pool game at home to the same opposition and that's a cinq-pointer even at this stage.

In between of course there is the little matter or not so little matter of Bourgoin and Bath but in all honesty most planners would prefer them to Toulouse and Wasps or Stade and Northampton or Wasps and Biarritz or anyone and anyone.

After their great Premiership run this season Bath have to be respected and they'll get loads of that when they come to Dublin the last week in October, but no side is going to go home from Luas Land with a lot to shout about.

So away to an Italian side first up and then two home games in a row should leave Kidney's Lions with something to roar about when they head to Bourgoin in the middle of December.

Of all the French sides competing this year, again ask most coaches if they had a choice of whom he'd prefer to play, most would opt for Bourgoin. It's not that they don't have the pride or the passion of the others. It's not that they don't have the ilan, they just don't have the euros. If Stade and Toulouse are six-pack, Bourgoin are yellow-pack. If Biarritz source their players from the Harrods shelves, Bourgoin shop in Lidl.

They are a wholesome and whole-hearted side. They'll test Leinster up front but Kidney's backs will burn them. Home and away.

And then there's Munster. Twice finalists (both times with DK now of L), serial semi-finalists and with a (per capita) following that puts them right up there with - whisper it - Man U ? Quite simply, the people's champion. The side that possibly every neutral and even a lot of partisans would love to see winning a Euro(vision Song Contest even) Heineken Cup.

Hard-nosed, grafters rather than glisteners and opposed this year by old foes Castres, the London Irish of NEC Harlequins and the Ospreys, from Neath and Swansea.

At home the first day, Limerick folk may see Jeremy Staunton in unfamiliar Harlequin colours in the familiar surrounds of Thomond Park and Munster end their pool campaign with a trip to The Stoop. Ouch.

Like Leinster, they'll face into the first of the December games just after the autumn international when the bulk of their players will have been absent from the squad for over a month. However, while Leinster are at home that week, Munster - like Ulster - must haul themselves to France for the first of the back-to-back matches with a Castres side who have spent lavishly in the close season.

There is a 'history' between Munster and Castres and that December encounter will not be for the faint-hearted.

As third Irish seed Ulster expected tough opposition and they've haven't been disappointed. Alongside the French champions they face Gloucester and Cardiff Blues and once again this Pool 6 can be expected to go right down to the final day.

Ulster begin and end with Cardiff Blues, a side who are only in the competition because of the demise of Celtic Warriors and their squad has been strengthened by the influx of some of those players.

Bank on Ulster to reap a rich harvest from their Ravenhill games, but the crucial period for them will come end of October and then the beginning of December, two weekends that sees them in Kingsholm and Stade Jean Bouin.

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20 June 2018
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