By: Grant Fisken
The domestic season has only just finished and there is still the small matter of a World Cup approaching on the horizon, but the draw for 2015/16’s two major European club competitions has taken place in Switzerland. It will be the second staging of the European Rugby Champions Cup following its rather acrimonious creation to replace the Heineken Cup, but whatever the name of the tournament, some things don’t change.
In May, Toulon became the first team to win the European Cup in three consecutive years, edging out Clermont Auvergne 24-18 in an all-French final at Twickenham. Next season they will have the chance to equal Toulouse on a tournament-high four titles, and few would bet against them, but they will have to get through the clichéd “Pool of Death” first. Bath, Leinster and Wasps await them in Pool 5, which comfortably looks the toughest group, on paper at least.
A look at last season’s competition shows just how close the pool could be. Leinster edged out Bath 18-15 in the quarterfinal while Toulon were beating Wasps 32-18 at the same stage. Leinster and Toulon then met in the semifinal, with the French side prevailing in extra-time. The holdershave been something of a recent nemesis for Leinster after also knocking them out in the quarterfinal the previous year.
With half of last season’s quarter finalists being drawn in the same pool, it opens up the tournament in the other four groups. Last season’s beaten finalists Clermont will be confident of a safe passage to the last eight once again. They are in Pool 2 with Ospreys, Exeter Chiefs and Bordeaux-Begles, who squeezed past 2014/15 Challenge Cup winners Gloucester 23-22 in a play-off to secure the final spot in the competition.
English champions Saracens will be looking to go one step further than last season, when they reached the semifinal, only to lose 13-9 at Clermont. The Londoners will be looking to break the French/Irish dominance of this competition which has seen them produce the last eight winners, since Wasps lifted the trophy in 2007. They will face Ulster, Toulouse and debutants Oyonnax in Pool 2.
Pools 3 and 4 contain the champions of the Pro12 and French Top 14 respectively. Glasgow Warriors will be looking to transfer their form from league competition to the European stage, particularly at Scotstoun Stadium where they had a 100% winning record on their way to the Pro12 title. The sole Scottish representatives will face Northampton Saints, Racing 92 and Scarlets. French champions Stade Francais were not even in the Champions Cup last season. They were knocked out in the group stage of the European Rugby Challenge Cup. They will contest Pool 4 with Munster, Leicester Tigers and Treviso.
There was a big day for Russian rugby in the draw for the Challenge Cup as Enisei-STM will become the country’s first team to compete in a major European club competition. The team from Krasnoyarsk will look forward to trips to Newcastle, Brive and Connacht.
Both competitions will start a bit later than usual, in mid-November, with clubs likely to be anxious their players make it through the World Cup in form, but most importantly unscathed.