McGeechan predicts tough challenge

Guinness Premiership champions Wasps will have to be at their very best if they are to make an impact on next season’s Heineken Cup, according to director of rugby Ian McGeechan.

Today’s draw for the group stage of the 2008-09 tournament - the first to use European Rugby Cup’s new ranking system based on performances over the last four seasons - pitted the London club against the testing trio of Magners League winners Leinster, French side Castres, and Edinburgh, led by former England head coach Andy Robinson.

With only one of the quartet guaranteed a place in the knockout rounds, the 2007 tournament victors will have to maintain strong form in all six Pool Two matches if they are to fare better than last season, when they were sent crashing out at the first hurdle.

“Ours is a challenging group, but that’s what you’d expect from the Heineken Cup as the top club competition in Europe,” McGeechan said.

“Looking at the groups across the draw, they are all very well spread and there’s no bad team, therefore our performances are going to have to be top drawer, but we’d expect that in such a premier competition.

“Whoever wants to qualify from this group will have to be outstanding to win it.”

Sale face arguably the most daunting prospect of any of the English sides, as they take on holders Munster plus French teams Clermont Auvergne and Montauban in Pool One.

Premiership runners-up Leicester were drawn against Perpignan, Welsh entertainers Ospreys and Italian minnows Treviso in Pool Three.

Gloucester’s main rivals in Pool Six are likely to be Biarritz, although last season’s quarter-finalists Cardiff will hope to have a say in a group in which Italy’s Calvisano look set to be the whipping boys.

The Cherry and Whites’ head coach Dean Ryan said: “Biarritz are a hugely powerful and organised side, have a history in the competition that would be the envy of a lot of clubs and contested a final only three seasons ago. Their threat, particularly at home, is an obvious one.

“They have a tremendous pedigree and their home record is as good as anything in the competition. It will be a huge examination for us but one we will relish as we develop as a side.”

Blues director of rugby David Young was optimistic, adding: “Overall, I’m pleased with the draw. It’s not a difficult as it could be and perhaps not as difficult as years gone by, when we’ve had Munster and Leicester in our group.”

This season’s beaten Heineken Cup finalists Toulouse are in Pool Five, alongside Challenge Cup winners Bath, Newport Gwent Dragons and Glasgow.

Harlequins appear to have it all to do in Pool Four, with Stade Francais, Llanelli Scarlets and Ulster awaiting them when the matches get under way in October.

Scarlets head coach Nigel Davies said: “I think we have got a well-balanced draw, it’s fairly evenly matched and will be a very competitive group.

“I think there are some opportunities for us here but, essentially, it’s down to form and who hits the ground running.”

The first round of matches takes place between October 10-12.