Champions Cup draw: O’Gara faces prospect of taking La Rochelle to Munster
French club’s new head coach’s first big test could be a return to Thomond Park
La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara may have to face his old club Munster in the next Champions Cup. Photograph: Andrew Cornaga/Inpho
One of Ronan O’Gara’s first challenges as new head coach with French club La Rochelle might be to take his team to Thomond Park to face Munster in the pool phase of the European Champions Cup. What are the chances of that happening?
Twice a European Cup winner with Munster, O’Gara is back in the tournament with this year’s Challenge Cup finalists after a stint with New Zealand-based Crusaders, where he was assistant coach during their Super Rugby success in 2018.
The draw for next season’s European competition, which takes place on Wednesday in the Centre de Congrès Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland, will group teams into four tiers of five. This method could allow La Rochelle to be drawn in the same pool as Munster.
The draw takes place in two phases. The first is a preliminary round to finalise the 20 qualified teams from three leagues in their correct tiers. Once the tiers are established the draw for the pools then takes place.
Premiership winners Saracens, Pro14 champions Leinster and recent French Top 14 winners Toulouse are all assured of a place in Tier 1 with two clubs from Exeter, Glasgow and Clermont joining them.
Each of the Tier 1 clubs will head the five pools so they are separated at least until the knockout phase of the competition.
Once Tier 1 has been established, the remaining three tiers fall into place. Tier 2 will include the three third-ranked clubs from the leagues – Gloucester, Munster and Lyon – as well as the second-ranked club which was not drawn into Tier 1 and the fourth-ranked club from the same league as the club which was not drawn into Tier 1.
Tier 3 will include the two clubs ranked fourth (La Rochelle are the fourth-ranked French team) which are not in Tier 2 as well as the three fifth-ranked clubs from each league – Harlequins, Connacht Rugby and Racing 92.
The 42-year-old O’Gara has had prior coaching experience in European competition, having been defence coach at two-time Heineken Champions Cup finalists Racing 92 between 2013 and 2017. Back in France he’s now working alongside the former Leinster and Munster coach Jono Gibbes, La Rochelle’s director of rugby.
Tier 4 is already complete and contains the sixth-ranked clubs from each league, Bath, Benetton, Montpellier, Sale Sharks and the Ospreys.
While it seems complex, 14 tiers are already known with just six of the 20 to be finalised before the pool draws take place.
It is possible that Exeter and Glasgow are drawn as Tier 1 sides leaving Clermont to drop into the Tier 2 category. In that scenario they could be drawn in Leinster’s group extending one of the great rivalries in European rugby.
The last time the teams met each other in Europe was in the 2017 semi-final, when Clermont won 27-22 in Lyon before the French club went on to lose 17-28 to Saracens in the final.
After the Tiers are decided and the pool draw takes place key principles will apply. The first is that each pool will have at least one club from each of the three leagues. Each of the five pools will also have one club from each of the four tiers.
There will be no more than two clubs from the same league in a pool and no pool will contain two Pro14 clubs from the same country thus ensuring that Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht are kept apart at least until the knockout phase.
Finally clubs from the same league will be kept apart until the allocation of the Tier 4 clubs.
If La Rochelle are drawn in the same Pool as Munster, O’Gara could draw on the experience of his former Ireland team-mate Girvan Dempsey, after he was appointed as the Bath attack coach at the end of last season. Having spent his entire career as both player and coach with Leinster, Bath was drawn in Leinster’s Pool in this season’s competition.
In the back-to-back meetings before last Christmas Bath lost 10-17 at home in the Rec before comprehensively losing 42-15 in front of over 40,000 people in Aviva Stadium.
That put Leinster fans at the heart of what was a hugely successful European rugby year as more than one million spectators passed through the turnstiles including 51,930 who packed Newcastle United’s ground, St James’s Park, for the final against Saracens.
The match was screened in 170 countries including network television in the US where more than half a million viewers tuned in to NBC. Overall there was a 5.6% increase in combined attendances across the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup during the 2018/19 season.
2019/20 European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Pool Draws, Lausanne 1.00pm (Irish time)
PRO14 – 1.Leinster, 2.Glasgow, 3.Munster, 4.Ulster, 5.Connacht, 6.Benetton, 7.Ospreys. Top 14 – 1.Toulouse, 2.Clermont, 3.Lyon, 4.La Rochelle, 5.Racing, 6.Montpellier. Premiership – 1.Saracens, 2.Exeter, 3.Gloucester, 4.Northampton, 5.Harlequins, 6.Bath, 7. Sale.
Tier 1: Saracens, Leinster, Toulouse +2 more teams.
Tier 2: Gloucester, Munster, Lyon +2 more teams.
Tier 3: Harlequins, Connacht, Racing +2 more teams.
Tier 4: Bath, Benetton, Montpellier, Sale, Ospreys.