There will be new challenges and old rivalries renewed when Connacht embark on their second Heineken Cup campaign in October.
The draw for the 2012/13 tournament was made this morning at the Aviva Stadium under the tutelage of ERC President Jean-Pierre Lux and Chief Executive Derek McGrath.
Connacht have been drawn in Pool 3 along with Amlin Challenge Cup winners Biarritz Olympique, Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins and new Italian franchise Zebre.
It will be the first time Connacht face Basque giants Biarritz, who beat Toulon in this year’s all-French Amlin Challenge Cup decider. They boast a team packed with internationals including French stars Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordorquy.
The surfing hotspot in the South of France will surely be a favourite with the travelling Connacht Clan.
Harlequins, on the other hand, are no strangers to the Sportsground. Conor O’Shea’s men were the opponents on the most memorable night in the history of Connacht Rugby.
A hard-fought 9-8 win back in January was Connacht’s first ever victory in Europe’s premier club tournament and is a night that will live long in the folklore of the province.
Parma-based Zebre are the newest club in Europe, formed last week after the Italian Rugby Federation announced them as the replacements for defunct side Aironi.
They boast an impressive backroom team with former Toulouse and Bayonne coach Christian Gajan taking over as technical director, and former Rugby Reggio boss Roberto Manghi coming in as director of rugby.
They will be assisted by Italy’s all-time most capped player Alessandro Troncon and former Italy Under-18 and Under-20 coach Vincenzo Troiani. Recently-retired Italian hooker Fabio Ongaro will be their team manager.
Speaking after the draw was made, Connacht head coach Eric Elwood commented: “My initial response is interesting as I spoke to Conor O’Shea this morning and we could have done without Harlequins.
“I mean that in a nice way as we have played against them quite a bit over the last three or four years and we are playing them again in pre-season this year. Still it will be good, they are the current English champions and we know them very well.
“I don’t think anyone will forget the fantastic atmosphere at the Sportsground back in January and we will be looking for more nights like that.
“It’s also nice to get a different team like Biarritz. Obviously they are the Amlin Challenge Cup champions and they are a strong traditional French team. It is a place where Connacht have not gone before, so we are very much looking forward to that and I’m sure the fans will be too.
“Finally we have the newly formed team from Italy, Zebre. They are an unknown so that will be interesting too.
“So, all in all, we have a lot to look forward to. When we look at the groups we are happy with the draw and hopefully we can build on the performances we had last year.”
The only way Connacht fans can guarantee their ticket for each of the province’s home games in the Heineken Cup is by purchasing a Season Ticket.
Connacht Season Tickets are on sale now and can be bought on www.connachtrugby.ie. Season Ticket holders will also have priority booking on all away fixtures. Details of the kick-off times and dates will be announced in July.
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