Another Irish winner for next year’s Heineken European Cup?

The draw for rugby’s 2006-2007 [url=http://www.ercrugby.com]Heineken European Cup[/url] was made today and the increasing number of fans who travel to away fixtures will be consulting flight schedules, inventing excuses and buttering up partners.

[url=http://www.ulsterrugby.com]Ulster[/url] won the European Cup in 1999 however their record in the competition since then has been mediocre at best. Ulster coach Mark McCall will be under pressure to take the team to the next level with more success in Europe after Ulster’s [url=http://www.sluggerotoole.com/index.php/weblog/comments/ulsters_celtic_league_title/]Celtic League win[/url] last season.

However despite being number one Irish seeds, it looks like Ulster has one of the more difficult groups with no “banker” games against weaker opposition such some of the Italian or Scottish sides.Ulster has an intriguing pairing with the “plastic paddies” of [url=http://www.london-irish.com]London Irish[/url] who finished third in the Guinness Premiership. London Irish no longer play in London and don’t have many Irish playing for them these days as well, indeed they have a number of England and England A internationals. Will there be divided loyalties for Ulster exiles amongst the London Irish fans? London Irish have been regular visitors to Ulster for pre-season friendlies but a European Cup tie will be an entirely different proposition. The return leg at the Madejski Stadium in Reading will likely attract a big Ulster crowd from both travelling fans and exiles.

Ulster had previously drawn one of the “big 3” French teams in the group stages (Biarritz, Stade Francais and Toulouse) for the last six years and continued this run of bad luck by drawing [url=http://www.stadetoulousain.fr]Toulouse[/url], three times winner of the European Cup and runner-up of the French club championship. Toulouse looks like a popular winter-break destination for the Ulster faithful.

Lastly, Ulster has fellow Celtic League team [url=http://www.scarlets.co.uk]Llanelli Scarlets[/url] who will also provide tough opposition. Ulster beat Llanelli at home and drew away in this year’s Celtic League.

ERC, organisers of the European rugby competitions, is based in Dublin and there has long been rumours amongst fans that the ERC blazeratti engineer the draw to the benefit of favoured teams, none more favoured than [url=http://www.leinsterrugby.ie]Leinster[/url], just down the road from the ERC in D4. Leinster seem to have the easiest draw of all the Irish provinces with Scottish number one seeds [url=http://www.edinburghrugby.com]Edinburgh Gunners[/url], [url=http://www.sua-rugby.com]Agen[/url], who finished fifth in the French championship, and probably their toughest fixture against [url=http://www.gloucesterrugbyclub.com]Gloucester[/url], who finished fifth in the Guinness Premiership.

Lastly, European Cup holders [url=http://www.munsterrugby.ie]Munster[/url] will have one of the ties of the round against twice European Cup winners [url=http://www.leicestertigers.com]Leicester Tigers[/url]. Leicester beat Munster in the 2002 final when many Munster fans still feel they were robbed by the “hand of Back” skullduggery by Leicester player, Neil Back. This will be Leicester’s first visit to Thomond Park in the European Cup. Welsh number one seeds [url=http://www.cardiffblues.com]Cardiff Blues[/url] will test Munster and on their day are certainly capable of causing an upset. French opposition is provided by [url=http://www.csbj-rugby.fr]Bourgoin[/url] who finished sixth in the French championship. In the past, Bourgoin has been beaten embarassing easily in some European fixtures leading to suspicions that their focus has really been on the French domestic competition. Which Bourgoin will turn up for Munster? For fans of conspiracy theories or statisticians, this is the tenth consecutive year that Munster has not drawn one of the French “big 3” teams in the European Cup group stages.

The fourth irish province, [url=http://www.connachtrugby.ie]Connacht[/url] play in the second tier European Challenge Cup. The draw for this competition will be announced at a later date.