Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has given his thoughts on the newly-revealed Heineken Champions Cup draw for next season, which will see his charges meet Lyon, Northampton Saints and Benetton Rugby in Pool 1.
It is the first time the province have met French club Lyon while they have plenty of familiarity with Saints and Benetton. The back-to-back GUINNESS PRO14 champions returned to training this week and Cullen highlights that this extra focus will aid the squad during their pre-season regime.
“To now have the full Heineken Champions Cup draw confirmed, in addition to the confirmed GUINNESS PRO14 Conferences, it definitely sharpens the mind for the considerable task ahead this season,” said Cullen, who is entering his fifth year at Leinster’s helm.
“We have seen over the last few years just how difficult it is to compete in the European Cup and as always the first priority will be to get out of our pool and doing that in Pool 1 will not be easy.”
There has been huge progression made in recent years by both Lyon and Benetton in their domestic leagues. Lyon have qualified for the Champions Cup for the second consecutive year, while this is Benetton’s first time being in Europe’s top-tier tournament on merit.
“Lyon have been very consistent in the French Top 14 the last few seasons and their third-place finish last season was a further example of that consistency improving on their fifth place the season before,” added the Leinster boss, who recently confirmed the signing of 21 player contracts – including the return of Cian Kelleher from Connacht.
“Lyon are a very ambitious team that are well coached by Pierre Mignoni and we need to be at our very best to perform against them in the Matmut Stadium, where of course we played our 2017 Champions Cup semi-final against Clermont Auvergne.
“Benetton Rugby have been one of the success stories of the PRO14 the last few seasons. The work that Kieran Crowley has done there has meant their performances have continued to improve during his time, and they have made some shrewd signings in the off-season with the likes of Ian Keatley going there.”
As both a player and coach, Cullen has come up against Northampton Saints on numerous occasions, including captaining the side to that unforgettable 2011 Heineken Cup final comeback win in Cardiff.
“We have recent history against Northampton Saints, playing them in 2016 but also before that in 2013 with us winning in Franklin’s Gardens and them winning in the Aviva Stadium. And then, of course, in the final itself in 2011. It’s very competitive pool but we very much look forward to the challenge that it presents, in particular in a World Cup season.”
HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP POOLS – 2019/20 SEASON:
POOL 1: LEINSTER, Lyon, Northampton Saints, Benetton Rugby
POOL 2: Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors, La Rochelle, Sale Sharks
POOL 3: Clermont Auvergne, ULSTER, Harlequins, Bath
POOL 4: Saracens, MUNSTER, Racing 92, Ospreys
POOL 5: Toulouse, Gloucester, CONNACHT, Montpellier
MATCH WEEKENDS – 2019/20 SEASON:
Round 1: November 15/16/17, 2019
Round 2: November 22/23/24
Round 3: December 6/7/8
Round 4: December 13/14/15
Round 5: January 10/11/12, 2020
Round 6: January 17/18/19
Quarter-Finals: April 3/4/5
Semi-Finals: May 1/2/3
Final: Stade de Marseille, Saturday, May 23