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Ulster facing formidable Euro challenge, says Kiss

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss believes his side have been handed a "formidable" challenge in next season's Champions Cup after being paired with Wasps, La Rochelle and Harlequins in yesterday's pool stage draw.

"It's an exciting pool but a formidable one as well," said the Australian.

"Wasps, what they can deliver and the way they can play, it's exciting. They topped their league, as did La Rochelle in France playing good rugby.

"Harlequins are a side who always back themselves in that area of the game too."

The ping pong balls could have been far more cruel to Ulster, however, with Kiss happy with only having to make one trip to France this campaign.

"The thing that's a little bit of a plus in terms of the difference from the last few years is not having to play in France twice, it helps not having that added travel," he said. "Everyone is always going to look at their pool and say, 'That's tough', and look at somebody else's and say, 'That's easier', but ultimately we have to front up against three good teams."

The pairing with Wasps means for a second season in a row Ulster have been drawn to play a side they will meet in pre-season.

Based in Coventry after a 2014 move from London, Dai Young's men topped the table in the Aviva Premiership last season but lost in the final to Exeter.

The former home of Ulster's Charles Piutau, their squad currently boasts the likes of British and Irish Lions Elliot Daly and James Haskell, Springbok Willie Le Roux and Premiership Player of the Year Jimmy Gopperth.

Competition debutants La Rochelle will be more of an unknown quantity to some, but they finished top of the pile in the Top 14 before falling to Toulon in the semi-finals.

The coastal club have former All Black Victor Vito, who Ulster previously looked at signing, and French internationals Kevin Gourdon, Uini Atonio and Vincent Pelo in their pack.

It is Harlequins who the province met most recently in this competition, with the sides splitting two games in 2008-09.

The Twickenham outfit are a side packed with English internationals with Danny Care, Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown in the ranks, while props Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler are currently impressing with the Lions.

It will certainly be a test of Ulster's credentials, and if there is no improvement from last season then another early exit would beckon, but a return to the last eight should be seen as a far from impossible task.

Elsewhere for the Irish sides, it is a case of old faces in familiar places.

Departing Ulster hero Ruan Pienaar will quickly be back on Irish soil with his new team-mates thanks to Montpellier being handed a tough draw with Leinster, Glasgow and Exeter.

Munster were again drawn with Racing 92 and Leicester Tigers, just as last season, with Castres rounding out Pool 4.

The visit of the Parisian side will see Irish international Donnacha Ryan make an immediate return to his old stomping ground, while Racing also have Munster legend Ronan O'Gara on hand as a coach.

Connacht, who are in the Challenge Cup after their PRO12 title defence saw them finish seventh in the table, were placed in Pool 5 alongside Brive, Worcester and Oyonnax and the English visitors to Galway should have 38-year-old former Ireland lock Donncha O'Callaghan in their number.

Fixture dates will be confirmed later in the summer.

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