Champions Cup draw: Glasgow to face Northampton

GLASGOW Warriors will face a testing but mouth-watering task when they bid to break new ground in Europe following yesterday’s Champions Cup draw in Switzerland.

Ben Cohen of Northampton trys to find a way through the Glasgow defence during a Heineken Cup match in 2005. Pic: Getty

The newly-crowned Guinness Pro12 champions are up against Northampton Saints, Racing 92 and Scarlets in Pool 3 of the elite competition next season. All three of the opponents come with interesting angles in what is sure to be an intriguing campaign when it kicks off in November.

Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend will relish a clash with Northampton, the club he left Gala for in 1995 when rugby went professional. The Saints finished top of the Aviva Premiership in the regular season but were beaten by Saracens in the semi-final stage of the play-offs. The star attraction when Racing 92 come to town will be legendary All Blacks stand-off Dan Carter, who is joining the Parisian club on a record-breaking three-year contract reported to be worth in excess of £1 million a year.

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Pro12 rivals Scarlets will also bring familiar faces with Glasgow’s record tryscorer DTH van der Merwe on course for a swift return to Scotstoun after joining the Llanelli club. The Canada wing returned from injury to play a key role in delivering the Warriors a first major trophy for Scottish rugby last month with vital tries in both the semi-final against Ulster and the final against Munster, which was his last game for the club after a successful six-year stint. Former Glasgow flanker John Barclay is also at Scarlets.

Townsend expressed excitement at the draw and told “Northampton will be great for me personally, as I have very happy memories from being down there and they’ve grown so much since I was there.

“We were involved in two high-quality attacking games against them three years ago and their new ground is a great rugby venue. The new stand they are building for next season will enhance this further. It will be a great place to play.

“They have been one of the best English teams over the last few years in terms of consistency in the league and finished top of the Premiership last season.

“Racing 92 have one of the biggest budgets in world rugby and the highest-paid player in world rugby will be joining them in Dan Carter. They’ve recruited a lot of experienced players for next season and have got quality and real strength in depth.

“DTH [van der Merwe] said at the end of last season that we [Scarlets and Glasgow] would be playing together in the Champions Cup and he’s been proved right.”

After lifting the Pro12 trophy on that glorious evening in Belfast, making progress in Europe by reaching the knockout stage for the first time is Glasgow’s new target. Yesterday’s draw in Neuchatel presents them with a formidable, but not impossible task. The Champions Cup is a mercilessly tough competition, with only the five pool winners and three best runners-up progressing to the quarter-finals. A glance at a couple of the other pools reveals that, even with a top-tier seeding, Glasgow could have been dealt a much more punishing hand.

Pool 5 is sure to receive the mandatory “group of death” moniker after being populated with the powerhouse quartet of champions Toulon, Bath, Leinster and Wasps. Pool 1 looks tasty too, with English champions Saracens, Toulouse and Ulster all in the mix with French side Oyonnax.

Meanwhile, in the slightly more sedate environs of the second-tier Challenge Cup, Edinburgh can be relatively pleased with their Pool 5 draw. Coach Alan Solomons’ side broke new ground last season, becoming the first Scottish team to reach a European final in the same competition.

They lost it 19-13 to Gloucester at Twickenham Stoop and were then disappointed not to qualify for the Champions Cup after an eighth-placed Pro12 finish, but will fancy their chances of again making the knockout phase after being drawn alongside French duo Grenoble and Agen and Aviva Premiership side London Irish.

Alpine club Grenoble finished 11th in last season’s Top 14, while Agen were promoted to the top flight after winning the ProD2 play-offs.

London Irish have been familiar and fruitful opponents for Edinburgh, with five meetings in the past 13 years. The Scots have won the last four of those matches, including the dramatic Challenge Cup quarter-final victory at the Madejski Stadium back in April. There is a clutch of Scottish players in the Exiles’ squad, including Scotland and British and Irish Lions wing/full-back Sean Maitland, who has just joined from Glasgow, Scotland flanker Blair Cowan, former Edinburgh prop Geoff Cross and the Merchiston Castle-educated scrum-half Scott Steele.