By Brendan Cole
Leinster and Ulster have both been handed tough draws for next season’s Heineken Cup while Munster have a slightly easier task.
Connacht were drawn with a pair of European heavyweights but also have Zebre, the weaker Italian side, in their pool.
Three-time champions and current Amlin Challenge Cup holders Leinster already had a tough looking group after two rounds of the draw with RaboDirect Pro12 rivals Ospreys and Northampton Saints in their pool.
The fourth round then saw current French champions Castres Olympiques drawn with them to make Pool One one of the more difficult looking groupings to progress from.
It is not all doom and gloom for Leinster, however, with highly rated Castres coaching duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers set to quit the club for Racing Metro after masterminding Castres’ unlikely French championship victory.
Ulster were drawn with Leicester Tigers, Montpellier and Benetton Treviso in another difficult looking group.
Both Leicester and Montpellier boast good European credentials, while Treviso look increasingly capable of claiming the scalps of highly rated teams.
Munster, in Pool Six with Perpignan, Edinburgh and Gloucester, appear to have the easiest task of the three Irish top-seeded provinces.
Perpignan were seventh in the Top 14 and return to the top tier after two seasons of competition in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Connacht were in the third batch of seeds and were drawn with heavyweights Toulouse and Saracens and the weaker Italian side Zebre in Pool Three.
Pool Two consists of Toulon, Cardiff, Glasgow and Exeter while Pool Four contains Clermont, Harlequins, Scarlets and Racing Metro.