European rugby draws: Familiar faces and foes for Irish sides

Donnacha Ryan set for quick return to Thomond Park with Racing 92; Leinster paired with English champions Exeter

It's a case of familiar faces and foes following the EPCR Champions Cup and Challenge Cup draws for next season that took place in Neuchatel, Switzerland on Thursday.

Donnacha Ryan signed off on a 13-year career at Munster by helping the Irish province to reach the Champions Cup semi-final before going down to the eventual winners, Saracens, winners of the tournament for a second successive season.

The 33-year-old Irish international had agreed to join Racing 92 this summer after failing to agree a national contract and fate has decreed he would make an immediate return to Thomond Park, albeit in the colours of the Parisian club, as they were drawn alongside Munster in the same pool for the second season in succession. Clontarf-born scrumhalf James Hart moves in the opposite direct from Paris to Munster.

Former Ireland and Munster outhalf Ronan O'Gara, part of the Racing 92 coaching staff, gets another tilt at his home province after losing both of last season's pool matches. The first game between the sides scheduled for last October was postponed after the tragic death of Munster coach Anthony Foley in Paris; it was eventually played in January with Munster prevailing 32-7 before taking the return game in Thomond Park 22-10.

Munster, the Guinness Pro 12 runners-up, will face the Leicester Tigers for a third successive season. Last season they hammered the Tigers 38-0 in Limerick but a week later succumbed 18-16 to a late Owen Williams penalty. The outhalf will be at Gloucester next season but Australian Matt O'Connor, who coached Leinster for two seasons, is back at the helm at Leicester, with whom he spent five years (2008-2013).

Munster's final opponents in Pool 4, Castres Olympique, are a team that have previously played 12 times in Europe, leading the head-to-head by nine wins to three.

Leinster, who also reached the semi-finals of last season’s Champions Cup before losing to Clermont Auvergne face the newly crowned Aviva Premiership champions, the Exeter Chiefs. The clubs last met in the 2012-2013 season with the Irish province winning both matches.

Leo Cullen's charges also face a club from last season's pool stages in French side Montpellier but one under new management. New Zealand Vern Cotter, who coached Scotland for the past three seasons and before that Clermont Auvergne, takes over from South African Jake White.

The Top 14 side, backed financially by billionaire businessman Mohed Altrad, finished third in the league this season before falling to Racing 92 in the playoffs and have made some high-profile signings including former Ulster and Springboks scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar.

All Black Aaron Cruden and South African international Jan Serfontein have also put pen to paper, while local hero Louis Picamoles was bought out of his Northampton contract. Leinster's final opponents in Pool 3 are fellow Pro 12 side, the Glasgow Warriors, who will also have a new coaching set-up. Gregor Townsend is now head coach with Scotland has been replaced by the high regarded Dave Rennie, who joins from the New Zealand Super Rugby franchise, the Chiefs.

Ulster's director of rugby coach Les Kiss, who has brought in a coaching ticket of Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel for next season, is unlikely to be too unhappy with his team's draw in Pool 1 of the Champions Cup. They will face beaten finalists in the English Premiership, Wasps; La Rochelle, who finished at the summit of the league stage of the French Top 14; and the London based Harlequins, who they last met in 2009.

There is no doubt that Pool 2 will commandeer the headlines as it contains, the two-time reigning European champions Saracens and the team they beat in this season’s final, Clermont Auvergne, who went on to win the French title.

Connacht, under new coach Kieran Keane, are in Pool 5 of the Challenge Cup alongside regular rivals, Brive; Donncha O’Callaghan’s Worcester Warriors; and French side Oyonnax, who have appointed former Munster scrumhalf Mike Prendergast as attack coach.

The 2018 Champions and Challenge Cup finals will be played at Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium. The pool fixtures, dates and kick-off times, will be released following consultation between the clubs and the relevant television companies.

CHAMPIONS CUP
POOL 1

Wasps
La Rochelle
ULSTER
Harlequins

POOL 2
Clermont
Saracens
Ospreys
Northampton

POOL 3
Exeter
LEINSTER
Montpellier
Glasgow

POOL 4
MUNSTER
Racing 92
Leicester
Castres

POOL 5
Scarlets
Toulon
Bath
Benetton Treviso.

CHALLENGE CUP

POOL 1
Newcastle
Dragons
Bordeaux
Enisei-STM

POOL 2
Blues
Sale
Lyon
Toulouse

POOL 3
Gloucester
Pau
Zebre
Agen

POOL 4
Stade Francais Paris
Edinburgh
London Irish
Krasny Yar

POOL 5
Brive
CONNACHT
Worcester
Oyonnax

Dates of fixtures
Round 1:
October 12th-15th
Round 2: October 19th-22nd
Round 3: December 7th-10th
Round 4: December 14th-17th
Round 5: January 11th-14th
Round 6: January 18th-21st
Quarter-finals: March29th-April 1st
Semi-finals: April 20th-22nd
Challenge Cup final: Friday May 11th, San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao
Champions Cup final: Saturday May 12th, San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao