The group stages have been drawn for the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup, and there are some tantalising ties in prospect in the opening pool stage.
Saracens—who lost the Heineken Cup final and the Aviva Premiership final last month—have seen their recent bad luck continue, as they’ve been handed a perilously difficult draw. Mark McCall’s team will have to best Munster, Clermont Auvergne and Sale Sharks if they’re to make it out of what looks an extremely exciting Pool 1.
The holders Toulon—who won back-to-back European Cups in the past two seasons—are in store for some difficult games early on in the tournament. The current French and European champions will face off against Leicester, Ulster and Scarlets in Pool 3 as they look to win the first ever European Rugby Champions Cup.
The side that beat Saracens in the Premiership final was Northampton, and they’ve been handed an awkward looking pool themselves; they’ll face Racing Metro, Ospreys and Treviso in the opening round.
Here’s the draw in full, courtesy of the Premiership Rugby official Twitter account:
The new format of European Rugby’s top-tier competition sees the top six sides from both England and France qualify automatically, along with seven teams from the RaboDirect Pro12. Of those seven, Ireland, Wales and Scotland are entitled to at least one representative each.
The final place is determined by a playoff between the sides who finish in seventh place in the English Premiership and the French Top 14 respectively.
It’s a reduced format but a much more streamlined one that looks set to provide viewers with a product that contains a much greater proportion of top-class rugby.
English and French clubs had long been in support of a change in the format of European rugby after they argued the proportion of representatives from Celtic counties was unfair. This came to a head when it was announced last September that sides from the aforementioned nations would be forming a breakaway competition, per BBC Sport.
But despite the future of European rugby looking initially bleak, thankfully an agreement was struck for a replacement competition—the European Rugby Champions Cup—and now we can look forward to what promises to be an intriguing first run of this new tournament.
The favourites for the competition will once again be Toulon, but if they are to triumph it'll be without their inspirational skipper Jonny Wilkinson, who confirmed he would be retiring from the game ahead of Toulon's most recent European triumph, per BBC Sport.
Rugby World quickly dubbed Toulon's Pool 3 as the group of death after the draw was made, but it paled in comparison to the teams that will battle it out in Pool 1:
Group of Death, Pool 3 Toulon, Leicester and Ulster. Oh Lord...followed closely by Pool 1 Saracens, Munster, Clermont...cripes!— Rugby World (@Rugbyworldmag) June 10, 2014
If Saracens are to put the heartache of last season behind them, then they'll have to do things the hard way. Facing a team with European pedigree comparable to Munster is never easy, although the clash between these two huge sides in the group stage is vindication of the tournament's more compact format.
There may not be as many games for rugby enthusiasts to sample, but when the fixtures come around, an added injection of quality and significance should make for a host of considerably more gripping matches.