'Group of Death' does not hold any fears for Irish after Heineken Cup draw

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The Independent Online

Toby Booth, the London Irish head coach, has branded his side's Heineken Cup pool the "Group of Death" following the draw in Cardiff yesterday.

The Exiles were drawn alongside two-time champions Munster, Magners League winners Ospreys and Jonny Wilkinson's ambitious Toulon, who will play in the tournament for the first time.

Each member of that pool has legitimate designs on lifting the trophy at the Millennium Stadium next May, but as many as three of them face the prospect of failing even to reach the quarter-finals.

"Normally when the Heineken Cup draw is made there is a 'Group of Death' and it looks like Pool Three will be that group this year," Booth said. "There is no denying that it will be challenging but if you want to be associated with the best teams in Europe, as London Irish does, then you have to test yourself against the very best and we certainly will be doing that next season."

Both Munster and the Ospreys reached the knockout phase last season, where they were both eliminated by beaten finalists Biarritz, while cash-rich Toulon's rise in European rugby saw them qualify for the Amlin Cup final, which they lost to Cardiff Blues.

The Ospreys head coach, Sean Holley, has guided his side to the last-eight in each of the past three seasons and is optimistic of repeating the dose despite their tough draw.

"It is European rugby's elite tournament and you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and face some big challenges," Holley said. "Toulon were always going to be the wildcard – they have huge resources though and I've no doubt that they will be even stronger next season.

"London Irish are a very good side, well coached and full of potential. Munster are a European heavyweight and it will be good to have the big crowds and big occasions associated with the tradition they have."

The Saracens coach Brendan Venter hinted his side could play their home matches at Wembley after last season's beaten Guinness Premiership finalists were drawn with 2009 winners Leinster, French champions Clermont-Auvergne and first-timers Racing-Metro. Wembley was used as a Guinness Premiership venue last season, but has never hosted Europe's premier club competition.

"It's a big competition and we want to be playing the big teams," Venter said. "A couple of our group matches may be played at Wembley, and we can all look forward to a couple of fantastic European occasions at the national stadium."

He added: "Leinster are a top European team with plenty of experience, Clermont Auvergne are the current French champions and Racing Metro certainly don't lack ambition – they will all provide tough opposition home and away. Make no mistake, so will we. It will be a magnificent contest."

Wasps face a tough return to the Heineken Cup after a year away as they were drawn to face defending champions Toulouse, who beat Biarritz 21-19 in last month's final, as well as Magners League duo Glasgow and Newport Gwent Dragons.

Guinness Premiership winners Leicester, who failed to progress out of their group last term, will be favoured to reach the quarter-finals. Beaten Top 14 finalists Perpignan loom as their toughest challenge with Scarlets and Italy's Treviso, who will join the Magners League next season, making up the group.

Northampton were the only one of seven English side's to reach the quarter-finals last season and director of rugby Jim Mallinder was confident of repeating that performance. Saints were handed a friendly draw against Amlin Cup champions Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh and Castres.

"It is a promising draw for us," said Mallinder. "We have ambitions of becoming one of Europe's top teams that reaches the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup on a regular basis and this group is wide open.

"Cardiff showed how far they have come by winning the Challenge Cup in a hostile atmosphere against Toulon and Edinburgh have improved a great deal over the last few years.

"And any trip to France is tough, especially to a place like Castres. This season they beat both Toulouse and Biarritz, which shows that they have to be taken seriously too."

Steve Meehan's Bath finished rock bottom of their group last season with one win and face a tough ask to get through.

They were again drawn with Ulster with beaten finalists Biarritz confirming a difficult group that is rounded out by new Italian franchise Aironi.

The pool stages of next seasons's Heineken Cup begin in October with the final to be played at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on the weekend of May 21-22