Foley’s Munster draw the longest straw in Champions Cup pool stages

STILL NO WORD from Leinster on their next permanent head coach, but whoever it is that leads the province into the 2015/16 season has quite the task on their hands.

Pool 5 of the Champions Cup is a hugely daunting challenge, though the new man should certainly see it as an opportunity more than anything.

The new Leinster coach will have some high-quality players to work with. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

If it proves to be Leo Cullen who remains in charge of Leinster next season alongside a specialist attack coach, that duo have a prime chance to stamp their coaching credentials all over Europe by advancing out of the ‘pool of death’.

Should Leinster find and convince a more renowned head coach to come on board this summer, it’s an opportunity for that man to swiftly win over the province’s supporters by emerging from the group alive.

And if the policy that brought less experienced head coaches like Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt and Matt O’Connor to Leinster continues, the next in line is unlikely to be burdened by a great deal of expectation.

Mike Ford’s Bath are a side on an upward trajectory, playing an attractive brand of attacking rugby that many Leinster fans thirst for. And yet, their Premiership final and Champions Cup quarter-final defeats [the latter to Leinster] showed that they still have to develop the mental fortitude of a champion team.

Wasps are on a similar rise and have recruited handsomely ahead of next season under Dai Young, but Leinster can look back on their home win and a draw in the Ricoh Arena in the season just ended as performances that will be greatly improved upon.

Toulon away looks like a write-off, of course, but welcoming Paulie and the French giants to the Aviva Stadium is a thrilling prospect for whoever leads Leinster into next season. Opportunity knocks, especially as failure to advance to the quarter-finals in a difficult World Cup season probably wouldn’t be greeted with total discontent.

Munster look to have pulled the longest straw of all the provinces with their draw in Pool 4, one that Anthony Foley will be under a little more pressure to advance from.

That failure in 2014/15 was down to a home defeat to Clermont, not the heavy and dispiriting loss away to Saracens.

Foley’s biggest disappointment this season was the home defeat to Clermont. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Ensuring Thomond Park regains its ‘fortress’ status of the past is pivotal for Munster, though the possibility that Stade Français will be more interested in establishing themselves as a sustainable Top 14 force than achieving European honour would be helpful.

Leicester are beatable in Limerick too, whatever about the danger posed by the returning Manu Tuilagi and others. A double over Treviso must be taken as a given, but Foley’s men have been handed a prime position from which to return to the knock-out stages.

Each passing season only adds to Ulster’s frustration as they look again to take that often underestimated step from consistent contenders into trophy winners, both in the Guinness Pro12 and the Champions Cup.

Saracens seem almost certain to top Pool 1, while Ulster must look at minnows Oyonnax as an opportunity for 9 or 10 match points, even if the French side have a proud and impressive home record in their little town of 23,000 people.

Toulouse are the most intriguing team in the pool, given that Guy Novès’ lengthy tenure is now at an end and their recruitment has been limited. A new head coach, potentially Robbie Deans, will either lift the dormant beast back into life or struggle to invigorate a group of players accustomed to Novès’ old-school methods.

Ulster’s primary focus will be on themselves, with Les Kiss set to return after the World Cup as Director of Rugby, a massive asset. Simply having the luck to see more of their squad stay fit for the European campaign will be pivotal too.

Down in the Challenge Cup, one might expect Pat Lam to use the European competition as another chance to grow depth, heaping even more focus on the top-six Pro12 finish that is fast becoming their holy grail.

How will Pat Lam’s Connacht approach the Champions Cup? Source: Kevin Barnes/INPHO

That said, the possibility of advancing into the Champions Cup directly by winning the Challenge Cup might be attractive to Lam. The growth of his squad’s fringe players will be important if it is to be a battle on two fronts.

Either way, trips to Sochi, Newcastle and Brive are excellent chances for the Connacht Clan to make some incredible memories.

The early verdict? Munster with the best chance of a knock-out tie, Ulster certainly capable of going through as one of the best runners-up. With Leinster, like quite a bit about them right now, it’s difficult to know.

All roads lead to Lyon, but there is a distinct lack of confidence that an Irish province will be playing at Grand Stade de Lyon in May, 2016.

Fergus McFadden summed up Leinster’s Champions Cup draw with one perfect tweetLeinster to face Toulon-bound Paul O’Connell in Champions Cup pool stage

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