The four provinces now know who they will come up against in the pool stages of next season’s Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, following today’s tournament draws in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The iconic Olympic Museum played host to the event which was compered by BT Sport’s Sarra Elgan and Raphaël Ibañez from France Télévisions, with Dimitri Yachvili (beIN Sports) and Austin Healey of BT Sport conducting the draws.
Leinster’s defence of their Champions Cup will see them come up against three familiar opponents and former title winners in Pool 1 – Wasps, Toulouse and Bath. They were in the same pool as Wasps and Bath as recently as 2015/16, while they last met fellow four-time champions Toulouse in 2011 when they won a semi-final 32-23 at the Aviva Stadium.
Of course, there will be added intrigue in the two encounters with Bath as Girvan Dempsey, who had a 21-year association with Leinster and most recently as the province’s backs coach, is the English club’s new attack coach.
Leo Cullen’s men won their two most recent clashes with both Wasps and Bath, overcoming the Coventry-based outfit 32-17 at the quarter-final stage of the 2016/17 competition, and beating Bath 25-11 at the RDS on a January 2016 night that saw the likes of Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath and Tadhg Furlong make their first European starts.
Munster’s hopes of reaching a record 18th Champions Cup quarter-final rest on outperforming Castres Olympique, Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester in Pool 2. Castres emerged winless from two pool games against the Munstermen last season – going down 48-3 at Thomond Park in January – but were crowned Top 14 champions just under three weeks ago.
Incredibly, these will be Munster’s 15th and 16th European Cup matches against Castres, while Exeter, the 2016/17 English Premiership champions and runners-up this past season, are set for their first ever trip to fortress Thomond.
Rob Baxter’s Chiefs will get an early taste of Munster as opposition when the sides meet in a pre-season fixture at Irish Independent Park on Friday, August 24. Completing the Pool 2 line-up is Gloucester who narrowly lost last month’s Challenge Cup final. The Cherry and Whites will include a familiar face in South African lock Gerbrandt Grobler who recently moved on from Munster.
Johann van Graan commented: “It is a very tough draw for us. Castres are the champions of France and will prove extremely difficult opponents as the top seeds. The province have never played Exeter before but they have been one of the top teams in England for a number of years now and we will also meet them at Irish Independent Park in August for a pre-season game.
“Gloucester very nearly won the Challenge Cup and they have added even more quality to their side for next season and it will be good to see Gerbrandt again so soon. I’m sure the Munster supporters will be delighted with this draw as we welcome some of the best teams in Europe to Thomond Park.”
Ulster, who have an incoming new head coach in Dan McFarland, were the last ball drawn out, joining GUINNESS PRO14 rivals, the Scarlets, last season’s Champions Cup runners-up Racing 92 and Leicester Tigers in what is sure to be a hotly-contested Pool 4.
It will bring back memories of the 2014/15 tournament when Ulster also faced the Scarlets and Leicester in the pool stages, defeating both teams at Kingspan Stadium but finishing third in the table. The Llanelli outfit were Champions Cup semi-finalists and PRO14 runners-up this past season.
Ulster were 27-20 winners over the Scarlets in Belfast in the early weeks of the 2017/18 campaign but have not won at Parc y Scarlets since December 2012. On the plus side, they have won four of their five European ties against Leicester, and earned two wins and a draw in their last four continental clashes with the Scarlets.
Powerful French club Racing are fresh opponents for the Ulstermen, with Ireland internationals Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo standing out on their squad list. The road to Newcastle, the host city for the 2018/19 Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals, begins in mid-October – – the fixture dates, kick-off times and venues will be confirmed in due course.
Meanwhile, Connacht have English and French opposition to contend with in new head coach Andy Friend’s debut Challenge Cup season. Pool 3’s top seeds Sale Sharks, the former club of scrum half James Mitchell, took the spoils in a two-legged semi-final back in 2005, winning 25-18 at the Sportsground and 59-9 at Edgeley Park.
Sale, who include former Connacht out-half AJ MacGinty, and Bordeaux-Begles, who lost three of their pool games in last season’s Challenge Cup, finished eighth and tenth respectively in their domestic leagues in 2017/18, while Perpignan, who recently signed Ireland out-half Paddy Jackson, are on the comeback trail after winning the Pro D2 title last month to end their four-year absence from the Top 14.
2018/19 HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP POOLS –
POOL 1: LEINSTER, Wasps, Toulouse, Bath
POOL 2: Castres Olympique, Exeter Chiefs, MUNSTER, Gloucester
POOL 3: Saracens, Glasgow Warriors, Lyon, Cardiff Blues
POOL 4: Scarlets, Racing 92, Leicester Tigers, ULSTER
POOL 5: Montpellier, Newcastle Falcons, Edinburgh, Toulon
2018/19 CHALLENGE CUP POOLS –
POOL 1: Northampton Saints, Clermont Auvergne, Dragons, Timisoara Saracens
POOL 2: Pau, Ospreys, Worcester Warriors, Stade Francais
POOL 3: Sale Sharks, CONNACHT, Bordeaux-Begles, Perpignan
POOL 4: La Rochelle, Zebre, Bristol Bears, Enisei-STM
POOL 5: Benetton Rugby, Harlequins, Agen, Grenoble
EPCR KEY DATES – 2018/19 SEASON:
Round 1: October 12/13/14
Round 2: October 19/20/21
Round 3: December 7/8/9
Round 4: December 14/15/16
Round 5: January 11/12/13
Round 6: January 18/19/20
Quarter-Finals: March 29/30/31
Semi-Finals: April 19/20/21
Challenge Cup Final: Friday, May 10, St James’ Park, Newcastle
Champions Cup Final: Saturday, May 11, St James’ Park, Newcastle