Leinster stand alone in the opposite half of the 2020-21 Heineken Champions Cup from the other Irish provinces and, on balance, probably have the best of the draws presented to the Irish quartet. There was no great advantage in having a tier one seeding, as this meant being drawn against Montpellier or four-time winners Toulouse, but avoiding the latter was probably preferable.
In also being drawn against one of the tier four clubs from the Premiership, Leinster were permed with Northampton, rather than Gloucester. Instead, Ulster have been given the shorter straw in being drawn to play Toulouse (against whom they have a varied and healthy head-to-head record of five wins, one draw and three defeats) and Gloucester home and away.
Munster, as tier two seeds, could have been drawn against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle or Clermont – both of whom have started the season strongly with four wins out of five – and in the event avoided their former legend.
But Clermont are something of a bogey side, having won five of the previous seven meetings. Johann van Graan’s side will also play Harlequins rather than Sale home and away which, on balance, looks preferable, regardless of their 6-1 record against the London club.
Instead it is Connacht who will be renewing old acquaintances in what is, perhaps, the most intriguing draw from an Irish perspective and certainly the one with the most novelty value. Almost inevitably, they were drawn to play the upwardly mobile European Challenge Cup champions Bristol, whom they have never played, and their former coach Pat Lam and long-serving captain John Muldoon, who is the Bears assistant coach.
Two other members of Connacht’s 2015-16 Pro12-winning side, Jake Heenan and Niyi Adeolokun, were also part of the Bears’ Challenge Cup final win over Toulon recently.
And instead of Toulon, Connacht probably drew the tougher French challenge in Racing 92 – Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan et al – whom Connacht have only played once before, way back in 1999 in the Challenge Cup.
The Parisian club’s desire to win the trophy will only have been fuelled by a third final defeat in the last five years against Exeter a fortnight ago.
Whereas Leinster are the only side in Pool A, the other three Irish provinces will be competing to be among the top four in Pool B and qualification for the quarter-finals.
Leinster hold a 4-1-1 head-to-head record over Montpellier, whom they faced in the pool stages three and four seasons ago, and a 6-1 record over Northampton, whom they overcame in the 2011 final and twice four seasons ago.
“Obviously we know them really well having played both sides in the last couple of years, certainly in my time here. So that’s point number one,” said senior coach Stuart Lancaster, who reckoned three wins out of four would probably be the minimum requirement to qualify for the last eight.
“The competition format means there’s very little room for error. I guess you can’t be expecting to get through unless you’re winning three from four, so you’re going to have to try get an away win. Both places are very difficult to go to, to win.”
The first round comes a week after the completion of the Autumn Nations Cup, which is also liable to prove more complicated for Leinster than anyone else given “the re-integration of 15 to 20 Ireland players”.
“That selection for the first game will be critical really,” admitted Lancaster. “I don’t think many other teams, if any, will supply as many international players as we do. How we manage that process and re-integrate those players – some might play and some might not. Also, you’ve got to remember these players have played under a different coaching team, a different calling system, so there’s no guarantees at all.
“It’s a tough start for us whether we play at home or away or whether it’s against Montpellier or Northampton because of that reason as much as anything else. Then even if you get the wins, it doesn’t guarantee you a home quarter-final, it just guarantees you a spot in the top four. You’ve got a home and away quarter-final because of the nature of the two-leg affair.”
2020/21 Heineken Champions Cup
Pool A (with opponents in brackets)
Bordeaux-Bègles (Dragons, Northampton Saints)
Leinster (Montpellier, Northampton Saints)
Wasps (Dragons, Montpellier)
Bath (La Rochelle, Scarlets)
Edinburgh (La Rochelle, Sale Sharks)
Toulon (Sale Sharks, Scarlets)
La Rochelle (Bath, Edinburgh)
Sale Sharks (Edinburgh, Toulon)
Scarlets (Bath, Toulon)
Dragons (Bordeaux-Bègles, Wasps)
Montpellier (Leinster, Wasps)
Northampton Saints (Bordeaux-Bègles, Leinster)
Pool B (with opponents in brackets)
Exeter Chiefs (Glasgow Warriors, Toulouse)
Lyon (Glasgow Warriors, Gloucester)
Ulster (Gloucester, Toulouse)
Bristol Bears (Clermont Auvergne, Connacht)
Munster (Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins)
Racing 92 (Connacht, Harlequins)
Clermont Auvergne (Bristol Bears, Munster)
Connacht (Bristol Bears, Racing 92)
Harlequins (Munster, Racing 92)
Glasgow Warriors (Exeter Chiefs, Lyon)
Gloucester (Lyon, Ulster)
Toulouse (Exeter Chiefs, Ulster)
2020/21 season weekends
Round 1: December 11th-13th
Round 2: December 18th-20th
Round 3: January 15th-17th
Round 4: January 22nd-24th
Quarter-finals, 1st leg: April 2nd-4th, 2021
Challenge Cup Round of 16: April 2nd-4th, 2021
Quarter-finals, 2nd leg: April 9th-11th, 2021
Challenge Cup quarter-finals: April 9th-11th, 202
Champion & Challenge Cup Semi-finals: April 30th- May 2nd, 2021
Finals (at Stade Vélodrome, Marseille) - Challenge Cup: May 21st, 2021; Champions Cup: May 22nd, 2021