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Saturday 21 September 2019

Leinster on easy street

But many threats in Munster's 'Group of Death'

Former Munster player Simon Zebo
Former Munster player Simon Zebo

Back in February of last year when Simon Zebo was preparing for his French sojourn, the prospect of playing against Munster for Racing 92 was put to him.

"I would pull a sickie, I wouldn't play," Zebo quipped.

"I couldn't play against Munster. There is no way I'd play."

Come next season, that will be put to the test as Munster's top try-scorer is one of many potent threats in a Champions Cup pool that is the epitome of a 'group of death'.

Having already been landed alongside Saracens, who were the worst possible tier-one opponents, Racing, who were unquestionably the next team Munster least wanted to face, joined a brutal looking Pool 4 that is completed by the Ospreys.

If you thought the draw was bad for Munster, spare a thought for the Welsh side. As soon as it became clear that Ronan O'Gara would not be returning to Thomond Park with La Rochelle, you just knew the other major narrative would come to pass, and so it did.

As strange as an occasion as it will be, Zebo and Donnacha Ryan will relish the chance to play against their home province in Limerick.

Munster have had a busy, but successful few weeks, adding Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to their coaching staff.

Larkham won't arrive in Limerick until August, while it will be October before Rowntree starts his new job.

Although Munster have done very good business by recruiting such an experienced duo, their late arrivals mean that their philosophies will take even longer to be fully implemented.

Being drawn in such a difficult pool leaves very little wiggle room and Johann van Graan has learned that the hard way.

The head coach has repeatedly spoken about the importance of playing knockout rugby at home and to do so next season, his side are going to have to conjure up something special against the reigning champions and the previous season's beaten finalists.

All three heavyweights will fancy their chances of beating the Ospreys home and away, but Allen Clarke's side certainly have the potential to cause an upset or two.

If Munster were given the worst possible draw, then Leinster are definitely at the other end of the scale - sitting pretty.

Despite enjoying an excellent domestic campaign in which they finished third in the Top 14 table, Lyon have little-to-no European pedigree.

On paper at least, they should provide the biggest competition for Leo Cullen's men, who will be wary that Northampton are on the up again, as are Benetton, who will have Dubliner Ian Keatley in their ranks.

Trouble

That said, Leinster should have little trouble advancing from this pool as winners, as well as having their sights firmly set on being the No 1 seeds heading into the knockout stages.

Given that they entered the draw as a tier-three team, Connacht knew they were always going to be handed a tough pool.

The Westerners will make a welcome return to the main stage alongside French champions Toulouse, who they will face for the fourth time in their past five seasons in the Champions Cup campaigns.

An immediate return to Kingsholm is on the cards for prop Paddy McAllister, who has joined Connacht from Gloucester, as the English outfit and Montpellier make up Pool 5.

Andy Friend's squad strength will be stretched next season as they fight on both fronts, and two daunting trips to France will test that depth.

Like Leinster, Ulster will be quietly satisfied with their draw and will be confident they are good enough to emerge from the pool.

Clermont will be tough to beat, particularly in their own back yard, but there is nothing to fear with Harlequins or Bath.

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