The draw for the 17th season of the Heineken Cup was made at Twickenham Stadium today with the seven English clubs targeting a return to the home of English rugby when the final is played in late May, 2012.
And London Irish Director of Rugby Toby Booth believes their Pool 2 opponents Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh and Racing Metro 92 will prove the perfect mix of fresh challenges as they chase European glory.
“It is great to be facing sides we have never played before in Europe and that is the magic of the competition,” he said.
“Last year we were in the so-called Pool of Death while this time around we have been drawn in the Pool of Attack.
“Last year’s experience will benefit us this time around and we are licking our lips at what lies ahead.
“It is Heineken Cup folklore but it is true, we must win our home games and try and pick up points away from home. It is going to be a frantic start to the season but we are up for the challenge and want to go one step further than last year.”
The French challenge comes in the shape of Racing Metro 92, who are relatively new to the European top flight, and their coach Simon Mannix accepts that while last season they were in the toughest pool of the lot things are not much better this time around.
“We have to look at this draw as a great opportunity for us to explore new territory against a very strong London Irish side and teams from two other countries we have never played before.
“We are still a very young side in terms of European experience – this will be only our third season in any European competition – but a great part of the Heineken Cup is seeing how other clubs from other countries play the game, so we are really looking forward to coming up against Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh as the first sides we have faced from either Wales or Scotland.
“Last season we were in probably the toughest pool but the experience we got from playing against Leinster, Saracens and Clermont, will stand us in good stead and we are really looking forward to the opportunity of playing against some of the best teams in Europe.”
Heineken Cup newcomers Connacht Rugby are up against the most successful club in the history of the tournament, but welcomed Toulouse as Pool 6 opponents. “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 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.”
Reigning Amlin Challenge Cup Champions Harlequins are relishing being back in the top flight with Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea echoing Elwood’s sentiments about going head-to-head yet again.
“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.”
The two Scottish teams both face English and French opposition in their groups, with new Edinburgh head coach Michael Bradley declaring:“We’re happy with the draw in the sense that the sides that we’ve been drawn against sides which all present winnable opportunities.
“I suspect this group will be very tight. The timing of the matches – who we play and when we play – is going to be very important but the overriding impression is that this is a group that Edinburgh could do well in.”
Meanwhile Glasgow Warriors head coach Sean Lineen said, “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!”
Aironi Rugby go into their second season in Europe up against former double winners Leicester Tigers with coach Rowland Phillips insisting that the Italian franchise will have learnt from their lessons in the top flight last season.
“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.”
The Scarlets, one of three Welsh regions in the tournament have 2011 Heineken Cup finalists Northampton Saints in their Pool and head coach Nigel Davies is targeting the home ties as his first priority.
“The key thing to getting out of this group is winning at home, we realised that last season and we just slipped up against Leicester. I don’t think any of the teams in the Pool will be happy, but we will all think we are good enough to beat each other.
“One thing is for sure, there won’t be two teams qualifying out of this Pool, I firmly believe the talent we have developed is good enough to compete at this level, but the players have to believe in themselves.
“We know all about Munster and Northampton Saints obviously reached the final last season. And we know from years of travelling to France that going to Castres will be very difficult. It is going to be very challenging for us, but I think we are going to improve from last season.”
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 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
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Northampton Director of rugby Jim Mallinder said: “The Heineken Cup is getting tougher and tougher each year as every team gets more experience playing European rugby. We’ve certainly got a challenging pool. We know first hand how difficult it can be to play Munster and Castres from our games with them in the past two seasons. Meanwhile the Scarlets showed how dangerous they can be in their group games last year.
“However playing in this pool will be a good chance to see how much we have learned from our experiences over the past couple of years. We’ve had another season together as a group and have played in some big occasions, and will certainly be looking forward to competing again in the Heineken Cup.”