Gerry Thornley: Familiarity over fun as Irish sides learn Champions Cup fate

Leinster, Munster and Ulster to meet again with Montpellier, Castres and Clermont

 

While familiarity has long since taken some of the shine off the competition, the draw for the 2021-22 Champions Cup, which was made on Wednesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, has seemingly lost some of its sheen.

It’s not just that some of the match-ups are a case of renewing old acquaintances, more that the tournament organisers have repeated last season’s revised format in the light of covid related cancellations and disruptions.

In doing so they have adopted a relatively supporter-unfriendly format consisting of two pools of 12 teams, wherein each team plays four games against two opponents, home and way, in contrast to the previous module containing six pools of four. That invariably provided competing teams some elbow room while also ensuring a hectic, round six scramble for the runners-up spots.

Instead, this is an uneven, four-game scramble over the pool stages, at the end of which 48 matches will reduce the number of competing clubs by just eight, will then lead to a two-legged, round of 16, which at least will be novel.

To begin with Leinster, as the Pro14 champions, beaten semi-finalists last season and one of the tier one seeded sides, their supporters will probably have greeted news that they are facing Montpellier again with a collective shrug of the shoulders.

This will be the third time in the last five seasons that Leinster will meet Montpellier in the pool stages, Leo Cullen’s team having won there by 35-14 with a bonus point last December before the return match was one of many cancelled in January.

The French team shouldn’t hold too many fears, albeit they have beaten Leinster once and drawn with them at home previously while losing the other five meetings. Montpellier finished 10th in last season’s Top 14 but qualified for this tournament by dint of winning the European Challenge Cup.

Leinster have also been drawn to play Bath, whom they have faced even more frequently, on 11 occasions in total. Leinster have won nine of those clashes, including three doubles in the pools stages - the last of them beint two years ago - and a somewhat fortuitous quarter-final victory in 2014-15. Bath finished seventh in last season’s Premiership.

There was probably a collective groan amongst both sets of supporters, players and back up staff when the draw pitted Munster and Castres, back in the tournament after finishing seventh in the Top 14 following an absence of two seasons, against each other yet again.

Time was when familiarity definitely bred contempt between these two, especially when meeting nine times over six seasons between 2000-01 and 05-06.

Munster have met Castres 16 times, more than anything other side in the history of the competition, having won 12, drawn one and lost three of those clashes.

By contrast, Munster have met Wasps infrequently but memorably. Wasps travelled over to Limerick in the 1996-97 season, when they would go on to win what is now the Premiership, whereupon Munster’s 49-22 win went a long way toward establishing Thomond Park as the European citadel it would become.

Wasps won a memorable semi-final at Lansdowne Road by 37-32 en route to winning the Heineken Cup in 2004 with Warren Gatland as coach and Lawrence Dallaglio as captain and, as defending champions, beat Munster 24-23 in 2007 at the Ricoh Arena before Munster won the return round six meeting at a Thomond Park still under redevelopment by 19-3, en-route to their second triumph in January 2008. The two haven’t met since.

Wasps squeezed into the Premiership’s eighth qualifying place on the last day of the season.

Back in the premier European competition for a seventh time, Connacht will be glad to have avoided Toulouse for a fifth occasion in the pool stages. They will face Stade Francais, who are a club on the up, having played very bright rugby in a strong finish to the Top 14 which saw them finish fifth.

Connacht will also meet Steve Borthwick’s upwardly mobile Leicester again, the Tigers having overpowered Andy Friend’s side by 48-32 in the European Challenge Cup round of 16 last April.

Ulster will renew acquaintances with their former head coach Jono Gibbes, who has just taken over the reins at Clermont Auvergne. The sides haved been drawn together for the fourth time in the pool stages - and the third time in the last five seasons - having previously shared three home wins apiece.

Clermont finished fifth in last season’s French Championship, as did Northampton - Ulster’s other Pool A opponents - in the Premiership. They have met five times, sharing two pool wins apiece while the Saints won their quarter-final in 2010-11.

Pool A

At face value, and insomuch as one can tell with this new and hitherto incomplete format, this looks the more competitive of the two pools as if features the next five in the betting after the holders and favourites, Toulouse.

Leinster will pay due respect to Montpellier and Bath but the four-time champions will be desperately disappointed if they aren’t one of the eight qualifiers and advance for the sixth year running.

Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle and Exeter, both with wounds still fresh from last season, should also make the most of top tier seedings and favourable looking draws. After that Racing should advance but then it’s anyone’s guess.

Pool B

Toulouse, the reigning European and French champions, have already been installed as tournament favourites to win a sixth star after their tier one seeding afforded them a favourable draw against Wasps and Cardiff, albeit the latter have improved significantly under Dai Young and play a bright brand of rugby.

Munster too will be mightily disappointed if they don’t progress from the group stages yet again, not least as Thomond Park hopefully welcomes back supporters.

Harlequins, thrilling Premiership champions, will also be hotly fancied to progress as will Bordeaux and Pat Lam’s uber ambitious Bristol with their high octane brand of rugby.

Connacht’s draw is tough enough, for Stade Francais and Leicester will both fancy their chances of progressing.

2021-22 Champions Cup

Pool A (with opponents in brackets)

Stade Rochelais (Bath Rugby, Glasgow Warriors)

Exeter Chiefs (Montpellier Hérault Rugby, Glasgow Warriors)

Leinster Rugby (Montpellier Hérault Rugby, Bath Rugby)

Racing 92 (Northampton Saints, Ospreys)

Sale Sharks (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys)

Ulster Rugby (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Northampton Saints)

ASM Clermont Auvergne (Sale Sharks, Ulster Rugby)

Northampton Saints (Racing 92, Ulster Rugby)

Ospreys (Racing 92, Sale Sharks)

Montpellier Hérault Rugby (Exeter Chiefs, Leinster Rugby)

Bath Rugby (Stade Rochelais, Leinster Rugby)

Glasgow Warriors (Stade Rochelais, Exeter Chiefs)

Pool B (with opponents in brackets)

Stade Toulousain (Wasps, Cardiff Rugby)

Harlequins (Castres Olympique, Cardiff Rugby)

Munster Rugby (Castres Olympique, Wasps)

Union Bordeaux-Bègles (Leicester Tigers, Scarlets)

Bristol Bears (Stade Français Paris, Scarlets)

Connacht Rugby (Stade Français Paris, Leicester Tigers)

Stade Français Paris (Bristol Bears, Connacht Rugby)

Leicester Tigers (Union Bordeaux-Bègles, Connacht Rugby)

Scarlets (Union Bordeaux-Bègles, Bristol Bears)

Castres Olympique (Harlequins, Munster Rugby)

Wasps (Stade Toulousain, Munster Rugby)

Cardiff Rugby (Stade Toulousain, Harlequins)

2021/22 weekends

Round 1 - 10th/11th/12th December

Round 2 - 17th/18th/19th December

Round 3 - 14th/15th/16th January 2022

Round 4 - 21st/22nd/23rd January 2022

Round of 16 (1st leg) - 8th/9th/10th April 2022

Round of 16 (2nd leg) - 15th/16th/17th April 2022

Quarter-finals - 6th/7th/8th May 2022

Semi-finals - 13th/14th/15th May 2022

Challenge Cup final - Friday 27th May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

Heineken Champions Cup final - Saturday 28th May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

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