Connacht will face familiar foes and fresh challenges in Heineken Cup

There is something old and new for Connacht in next season’s Heineken Cup.

Tuesday’s draw at the Aviva Stadium, the venue for the next cup final, threw up French, Italian and English opponents for Connacht in what will be their second season of playing in this elite competition.

Connacht, in the third tier, were drawn against top tier French side Biarritz, familiar foes Harlequins, and fourth tier newcomers Zebre from Italy in pool 5.

They are all teams Connacht will be reasonably content to face when the opening round gets underway in October. Harlequins, too, are delighted to have been handed a “kind” draw, while newcomers Zebre say Connacht are “ più abbordabile” than either Harlequins or Biarritz.

Connacht coach Eric Elwood was, as always, upbeat about the draw. “ When we look at the groups we are happy with the draw and hopefully we can build on the performances we had last year."

Biarritz will provide the French glamour this year in what will be a first meeting between the two clubs. Eighth in the European rankings, Biarritz finished second in their pool behind Saracens to go into the Amlin which they won over fellow countrymen Toulon to return to Heineken Cup rugby. They did not fare well in the Top 14 last season, but, with the likes of Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy, they will still represent a strong challenge in the intimidating Pays Basque environs.

Just one Euro ranking behind Biarritz are Harlequins, the current English premiership champions who Elwood admitted Connacht “could have done without”. The two sides are by now well used to each other, having met several times in the Amlin Cup before last year’s Heineken joust. In addition to the element of friendship - Elwood’s long-time friend and former playing partner at Lansdowne and Ireland, Conor O’Shea, is in charge of the London club - this year’s meeting will also focus on revenge, particularly for Quins who were dumped out of the cup by Connacht’s victory at the Sportsground last season. That 9-8 victory - Connacht’s first in the Heineken Cup, which also broke a tortuous 14 weeks without a win - is the standard to which Connacht, the 31st European ranked side, will aspire again this season.

“They are the current English champions,” says Elwood, “ and we know them very well. I don't think anyone will forget the fantastic atmosphere in the Sportsground back in January and we will be looking for more nights like that.

“Biarritz are a strong traditional French team. Connacht have not been there before so we are very much looking forward to that and I'm sure the fans will be too.”

Last in the group are the Italian newcomers Zebre who also will be competing in the RaboDirect Pro 12, replacing Aironi. Based in Parma and having assembled a quality management team, they are the unknowns in the group. However, by the time the two sides meet each in the Heineken, Connacht will know considerably more about them.

Leinster, too, will be renewing rivalry with Clermont Auvergne in pool five. The defending champions, looking for a hat-trick, will also face Scarlets and English newcomers Exeter, while Munster must overcome Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh, Saracens, and Racing Metro in pool one. Ulster have been drawn with Northampton Saints, Glasgow and Castres.

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