European Champions Cup: Toulon drawn in ‘pool of death’
Three time back-to-back champions to face Leinster, Bath and Wasps as meritocratic seeding continues to provide a wow-factor
Reigning European champions Toulon face the toughest test if they are to reach a fourth successive final after the French club were drawn in pool five of the European Champions Cup.
The big-spending French club, who lost in the quarter-final stages of the Top 14, were placed among the second tier of clubs before being drawn with Aviva Premiership runners up Bath, three-time European champions Leinster, and two-time champions Wasps, who are a club on the rise in England.
Already dubbed the pool of the death, it means former Munster talisman Paul O’Connell could face a number of his Ireland team-mates following his move to Toulon after the Rugby World Cup.
English champions Saracens face an easier task in pool one, despite being drawn with some-time European rivals Ulster, four-time European champions Toulouse, and French newcomers Oyonnax.
Guinness PRO12 champions Glasgow Warriors also face a tricky negotiation if they are to reach the knock-out stages for the first time as they were drawn in pool three with head coach Gregor Townsend’s former club Northampton Saints, Parisian money men Racing – who have splashed the cash this summer to sign Dan Carter, Chris Masoe and Martin Castrogiovanni – as well as fellow PRO12 club Scarlets, who signed the Warriors’ record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe this summer.
Clermont Auvergne, European rugby’s perennial nearly men will fancy their chances of making the last eight again after they were drawn in pool two with the Ospreys, Exeter Chiefs and Bordeaux-Begles.
French champions Stade Francais, who failed to take much interest in the European Challenge Cup this season, will very much be up for their challenge in pool four when they come up against two clubs with European pedigree in Munster and Leicester Tigers, with Italian club Benetton Treviso expected to be the whipping boys.
With the Rugby World Cup taking place in September and October, the start of the European competition has been put back to November, before reverting to its traditional schedule with rounds three and four in December, and the final two pool-stage rounds in January.
The knock-out stages will take place in April before the final at the newly-built Grand Stade de Lyon on Saturday 14 May.
Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, the pool stages for the Challenge Cup were confirmed.
Reigning Challenge Cup champions Gloucester face another easy ride to the last eight after they were drawn in pool four with French club La Rochelle, newly-promoted Premiership club Worcester Warriors, and the PRO12’s bottom club Zebre.
Last season’s runners-up Edinburgh Rugby will also fancy their chances of making the knock-out stages from pool five after they were drawn with London Irish – the side they defeated in the quarter-final – as well as French sides Grenoble and Agen.
Pool one sees Irish club Connacht drawn with Brive, Newcastle Falcons, and Russian qualifiers Enisei-STM.
The most fascinating pool in the Challenge Cup sees three rebuilding clubs drawn together in pool three with two of them competing in the Champions Cup last season.
English club Harlequins have signed a number of big names for next season, including British and Irish Lions Jamie Roberts and Adam Jones, who will come up against one of their former clubs in Cardiff Blues, who recently appointed Danny Wilson as their new head coach.
The pool also contains Montpellier, who are undergoing a revolution under South African head coach Jake White with 10 of his compatriots joining this summer, including Springboks front-row brothers Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis. The pool is completed by Italian minnows Calvisano, who were one of two clubs to pre-qualify for the tournament.
The final pool sees two big-spending French clubs paired together in Castres and recently-promoted Pau with last season’s semi-finalists Newport Gwent Dragons, and English club Sale Sharks completing pool two.
The Challenge Cup will be played on the same schedule as the Champions Cup with the final taking place at the same venue in Lyon a day earlier.