Edinburgh Rugby: Heineken Champions Cup draw throws up mouth-watering ties but it’s not insurmountable

Edinburgh’s return to the top table of European rugby has thrown up a predictably difficult pathway to the knockout rounds.

Edinburgh qualified for the Champions Cup by winning the Scotland x Italian Shield.  (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Edinburgh qualified for the Champions Cup by winning the Scotland x Italian Shield. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

The draw for the pool stage of the Heineken Champions Cup has paired them with Castres Olympique and Saracens, beaten finalists from the domestic leagues in France and England, respectively.

Mike Blair’s side will play both teams home and away in Pool A, with organisers EPCR again using the slightly convoluted format of 24 teams split into two groups of 12.

After four rounds of fixtures, the top eight in each pool will advance to the one-legged round of 16. Teams who finish eighth and ninth will drop into the Challenge Cup.

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The big change this season is that South African sides have been admitted, thus stretching the ‘European’ description to breaking point. The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks qualified by finishing in the top eight of the inaugural United Rugby Championship.

Having finished seventh, Edinburgh found themselves in the bottom tier of seeds and knew they would be drawn against French and English teams from the top band.

It’s a tough draw but not insurmountable and Blair will take heart from his side’s away victory over Saracens last season in the Challenge Cup.

The win at the Stonex Stadium was against opponents whose starting line-up included Alex Goode, Elliot Daly, Alex Lozowski, Maro Itoje, Andy Christie and Mako and Billy Vunipola, the core of the team which went on to lose the Premiership final to Leicester Tigers after finishing second in their first season back in the top flight following relegation for repeated salary cap breaches.

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Castres' Fijian centre Vilimoni Botitu in action during the Top 14 final against Montpellier. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It was a scandal which derailed the Saracens bandwagon but you don’t have to go too far back to recall their Champions Cup glory days. They reached the final four times in six seasons between 2014 and 2019, lifting the trophy on three occasions.

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By contrast, Edinburgh’s high water mark in the competition came over a decade ago when they made the 2012 semi-final. They got to the last 16 on their last appearance, in season 2020-21 under Richard Cockerill, but were heavily beaten by Racing 92 in Paris.

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Castres’ record in the Champions Cup is more modest than Saracens’. They lost all four pool matches last season - against Harlequins and Munster - saving their best form for the domestic game where they finished the regular Top 14 season in first place but lost out to Montpellier in the final.

Castres finished top of the French Top14 standings at the end of the regular season but lost in the final to Montpellier. (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

They are coached by Pierre-Henry Broncan, who had a spell at Bath as Todd Blackadder’s assistant, and the club supplied a couple of players to France’s Six Nations-winning squad, although hooker Gaëtan Barlot and young lock Florent Vanverberghe did not feature.

Edinburgh’s four matches will be played over two weekends in December and two in January, with exact dates to be confirmed.

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“As a club, we’ve had some memorable days in European rugby’s top competition and so to host both Saracens and Castres at DAM Health Stadium will be a massive occasion for the city and our supporters,” said Blair.

“Although both Saracens and Castres were runners-up in their respective domestic competitions, they both put together terrific seasons and on another day, we could be facing two champions in this year’s competition.”

2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup draw

Pool A (opponents in brackets)

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Castres (Exeter, Edinburgh)

Saracens (Lyon, Edinburgh)

Bulls (Lyon, Exeter)

Bordeaux (Gloucester, Sharks)

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Harlequins (Racing 92, Sharks)

Leinster (Racing 92, Gloucester)

Racing 92 (Harlequins, Leinster)

Gloucester (Bordeaux, Leinster)

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Sharks (Bordeaux, Harlequins)

Lyon (Saracens, Bulls)

Exeter Chiefs (Castres, Bulls)

Edinburgh (Castres, Saracens)

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Pool B (opponents in brackets)

Montpellier (London Irish, Ospreys)

Leicester (Clermont, Ospreys)

Stormers (Clermont, London Irish)

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Toulouse (Sale, Munster)

Northampton (La Rochelle, Munster)

Ulster Rugby (La Rochelle, Sale)

La Rochelle (Northampton, Ulster)

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Sale (Toulouse, Ulster)

Munster (Toulouse, Northampton)

Clermont (Leicester, Stormers)

London Irish (Montpellier, Stormers)

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Ospreys (Montpellier, Leicester)

Heineken Champions Cup 2022/23 key dates

Round 1 – 9/10/11 December 2022

Round 2 – 16/17/18 December 2022

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Round 3 – 13/14/15 January 2023

Round 4 – 20/21/22 January 2023

Round of 16 – 31 March/ 1/2 April 2023

Quarter-finals – 7/8/9 April 2023

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Semi-finals – 28/29/30 April 2023

Heineken Champions Cup final – Saturday 20 May 2023; Aviva Stadium, Dublin

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