Europe’s new rugby championship offically launched

Draw for new elite competion made and lesser European Challenge Cup birthed in Neuchatel

The European Rugby Champions Cup was officially birthed in Neuchatel when the draws for the inaugural tournament, and its less glamorous sibling, the new European Challenge Cup, were revealed following a preamble to explain a slightly convoluted process.

The first item on the agenda, once the Challenge Cup had been processed, was to whittle six tier one aspirants in the Champions Cup down to five. Saracens, who topped the Aviva Premiership pre-playoffs, Leinster as RaboDirect Pro12 champions and Toulon, the French Top 14 winners were absolved from the process.

Northampton Saints and Glasgow Warriors were handed the golden tickets, while Castres Olympique dropped into the second tier, eventually finding a home alongside Leinster, Harlequins and Wasps. In the context of the wider draw this was a relatively benign grouping in direct comparison to Pools 1 and 3.

Six of last season's Heineken Cup quarter-finalists found their way into those select vestries; three of four semi-finalists Munster, Saracens and Clermont Auvergne are cheek by jowl in Pool 1.


New Munster coach Anthony Foley, who takes over from Rob Penney, offered humour when he spoke about getting "three handy teams".

He continued: "We have picked up three of the best teams in Europe in our pool and looking at the rest of the tournament I think this is an even stronger draw than in previous years. We have six massive games ahead of us and we will be looking to them all. I'm sure there are a few teams who won't be too happy about having Munster in their pool."

Severe draw It's a brute of a draw but no more severe that Pool I, where fellow Irish province Ulster are shoulder to shoulder with two-time and reigning European champions Toulon – they also claimed the French Top 14 title last month – the Leicester Tigers, who won the previous incarnation of the competition twice, and the Scarlets against whom Ulster have struggled in Europe.

Former Ireland international and Scarlets head coach Simon Easterby admitted: "There is real quality in all the pools, but ours, along with one other, looks to be by far the hardest. Having the back-to-back European champions is a huge challenge.

"Toulon have a fantastic group of players, genuine world stars, but we showed away to Racing Metro 92 last season we could get a result in France. Ulster have compiled a fantastic squad, with a backbone of quality overseas players, but that said, they also have a lot of quality youngsters coming through their system and are a team on the up."

Traditional clusters The tournament has been reduced from 24 to 20 teams but the traditional fixture clusters of two matches in October, December and January were preserved. Although yet to be confirmed officially the quarter-finals will take place on the first weekend in April, the semi-finals a fortnight later and the final, two weeks earlier than usual on the first weekend in May. There was no update on the commercial end of the tournament. There won’t be a single title sponsor.

Those looking to the runes for signs of a potential tournament winner may place added importance in the fact Leinster beat their running mates in Pool 2, Castres and Wasps, at the pool stage and Harlequins in a quarter-final at The Stoop that subsequently become known under the sobriquet “Bloodgate” in the 2008-2009 season that saw them go on and win a first European title.

In more recent times Leinster beat Wasps in their Amlin Challenge Cup winning season, while they also prevailed home and away against Castres last season.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer