Leinster to face Irish challenge

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European champions Leinster will launch the defence of their Heineken Cup title in a group with London Irish, the Scarlets and Brive. The draw for the pool stages of the 15th Heineken Cup was made in Paris yesterday and has thrown up some intriguing games.

Magners League champions Munster will meet French champions Perpignan in Pool One, which also features Northampton. This season's beaten finalists Leicester have again been drawn to face the Ospreys while Top 14 runners-up Clermont Auvergne and Italian side Viadana complete Pool Three. Arguably the toughest group of all though is Pool Five, which features Toulouse, Heineken Cup semi-finalists Cardiff Blues, Harlequins and Sale.

Jean Pierre Lux, chairman of European Rugby Cup, said: "All the pools look balanced apart from Pool Five – that was always going to be the case because of the second English team."

The Guinness Premiership has provided seven teams, including two of the six top seeds in Leicester and Bath, who are in Pool Four with Stade Français, Ulster and Edinburgh.

Biarritz-bound full-back Iain Balshaw willface his former employees at Gloucester plus the Newport Gwent Dragons and Glasgow in Pool Two.

The Sale Sharks director of rugby, Kingsley Jones, admitted Pool Five is "a very difficult looking group". Toulouse have won the title three times while Cardiff Blues won the EDF Energy Cup last season and only missed out on a place in the Heineken Cup final after losing a penalty shoot-out to Leicester.