A mere 17 days after Leinster’s heroics in winning the 2011 Heineken Cup, the draw was made at Twickenham for the 2011-2012 version of Europe’s largest club competition.
As ever, it is difficult to predict with certainty what will transpire in next season’s tournament but on paper at least, some appetising encounters are in prospect.
The defending champions Leinster are drawn in Pool 3 alongside old foes Bath, Glasgow Warriors and French Top 14 Finalists Montpellier. On paper at least Leinster should have little to fear bearing in mind their fairy-tale victory in the final last month.
Glasgow Warriors head coach Sean Lineen is well aware of the difficulties to be encountered in this group, “We have three challenging teams in this draw however the boys are excited because these are three good teams to measure yourself against.
“Leinster are the current holders of the Heineken Cup and they bring an all-encompassing physicality to the competition. Montpellier are a great team who really like to play rugby and Bath have quality players right through their setup.
“We are up against three giants of the game really, but we want to play against the best and get three home wins first and foremost!”
Elsewhere, Magners League Champions Munster will be looking to make up for last year’s disappointing European campaign and they kick off in Pool 1 against Northampton, Llanelli Scarlets and Castres in a potentially tricky group.
Munster icon Anthony Foley had this to say about the Red Army’s future opponents, “”We’re up against sides we know well.” he says. ” Northampton Saints, beaten finalists this year, had them in our group last season and then again in the quarter final, a final score line that day that didn’t reflect the closeness of the game.
Then Scarlets, we play them twice a season in the League, never an easy touch. They’ve a good European pedigree and of course Castres have been around a long time, there’s plenty of history there for us, and are one of the French sides that you know are going to put it up to you.”
Unsurprisingly, the Shannon clubman is of the view that the timing of the fixtures and also the wellbeing of players following the New Zealand World Cup will have a big bearing on next year’s Heineken, “”Yes it’ll be interesting to see how the fixtures fall. We normally get the English side first and last. The competition kicks off two weeks after the World Cup final and how lads come through that tournament, physically and mentally, will obviously have a bearing.
Like when we played Northampton in the first round( 09/10), Paul (O’Connell) and Jerry (Flannery) were just in their second game back and that was significant I think.”
“So there’s loads of factors to be considered not least that we’ve landed ourselves in a very interesting group that will likely only provide one qualifier.”
Heineken Cup newcomers Connacht are sure to be ecstatic at the prospect of welcoming European Giants Toulouse, Harlequins and Gloucester to the Sportsgrounds next season.
“This is an absolute dream draw for us in our first season in the Heineken Cup – mighty Toulouse will be coming to Galway, you could not have asked for anything better,” said Connacht Director of Rugby, Eric Elwood.
“The Heineken Cup is the best club competition is Europe and we have been drawn with three fantastic teams, although it might have been nice to have a break from playing Harlequins and coming up against my good friends Conor O’Shea and John Kingston yet again.
“We have played Gloucester in a pre-season friendly in the past and while these three teams present great challenges we also see it as a great opportunity now that we are finally in the Heineken Cup.”
Harlequins Director of Rugby and ex Irish team-mate of Elwood, Conor O Shea also gave his tuppence worth about the draw, ““This is what the players and supporters wanted – to be back in the Heineken Cup and playing against the best teams.
“It was great winning the Amlin Challenge Cup last season and the experiences of beating London Wasps, Munster and Stade Francais Paris in the knock-out stages will stand us in good stead on our return to the Heineken Cup.
“Connacht are old favourites with us and we played them in the Pool stages last year and know just how tough it is to go to Galway.
“We know Gloucester very well and how difficult they are to beat, and Toulouse are the aristocrats of European rugby, they boast the best record of any side in the tournament and it will be fantastic to face them again.”
Finally, this year’s beaten Quarter Finalists Ulster face a difficult task to emerge from Pool 4. Leicester Tigers, Clermont Auvergne and Aironi are the sides to beat for the men from Ravenhill.
Aironi’s head coach Rowland Phillips had this to say when asked about his side’s challenge, “It is an extremely tough pool – Leicester and Ulster are both former champions – but whichever three teams you draw in the Heineken Cup, you are up against huge sides and that is the great attraction of the tournament for us.
“We had our moment against Biarritz last season and our aim is to build on what we have learnt and enhance the reputation of Aironi.
“We did play Leicester Tigers as Viadana in the 2009/10 season and this time we are in with three huge teams and the interest they generate in Italy will be enormous.
“The Heineken Cup is a pretty unforgiving competition and you just have to look at some of the proven European sides who failed to get out of the Pools last time to see the task we face trying to progress.
“However we are just delighted to be playing against three top teams and measure how we are developing.”
It’s a vintage Rugby year in prospect with the World Cup upcoming and next year’s version of the Heineken Cup is sure to bring fans out in their droves. Another electrifying tournament is in prospect. The road to Twickenham begins here.
2011/12 Heineken Cup Pool Draw:
Pool 1: Munster, Northampton Saints, Scarlets, Castres
Pool 2: Cardiff Blues, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro 92
Pool 3: Leinster, Bath Rugby, Glasgow Warriors, Montpellier
Pool 4: Leicester Tigers, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Aironi
Pool 5: Biarritz Olympique, Ospreys, Saracens, Benetton Treviso
Pool 6: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht.
Heineken Cup 2011/12 fixture dates
ROUND 1 11/12/13 November 2011
ROUND 2 18/19/20 November 2011
ROUND 3 9/10/11 December 2011
ROUND 4 16/17/18 December 2011
ROUND 5 13/14/15 January 2012
ROUND 6 20/21/22 January 2012
QUARTER-FINAL 6/7/8 April 2012
SEMI-FINALS 27/28/29 April 2012
The 17th Heineken Cup Final, Twickenham Stadium 19/20 May 2012