Toulouse will open their defence of the Heineken Cup with an away trip to Scottish No 1 seeds Edinburgh Rugby on the first weekend of December. The teams were also in the same Pool last season, 1996 champions Toulouse triumphing in both matches on their way to becoming only the second double Heineken Cup winners.
The fixtures for the Pool stages of the ninth season of Europe's premier club rugby tournament, released by ERC today (Friday, 18 July), see fellow double winners Leicester Tigers and reigning French champions Stade Francais - who fought out an epic Heineken Cup final at Parc des Princes in 2001 - clashing again in Paris in a group that includes 1999 champions Ulster and Gwent Dragons and has all the hallmarks of developing into "The Pool of Death."
Dean Richards, the Tigers' Director of Rugby, said: "They don't get much harder than taking on Stade Francais on their own patch. There is a bit of a déjà vu feeling because of the 2001 Heineken Cup final in Paris and we know Stade have so much to offer and just how difficult they are to beat. We will have to be at our very best if we hope to get the right result."
Leinster Lions and Biarritz Olympique, who met in last season's quarter-finals, have a quick-fire Dublin return; last season's beaten finalists Perpignan travel to meet London Wasps - the 2003 PARKER PEN CHALLENGE CUP winners and Zurich Champions - and Welsh top seeds Llanelli Scarlets take on Heineken Cup 2000 winners Northampton Saints at Stradey Park. However, the re-runs of the gigantic Gloucester and Munster contests go on the back burners until the back-to-back meetings in Rounds 3 and 4 in the new year.
The demands of Rugby World Cup could affect some teams more than others - and Toulouse head coach Guy Noves is concerned his Heineken Cup champions may have a huge hurdle to clear in that regard. "Going to Edinburgh in Round 1 will be difficult for us - and so much will depend on the physical and mental state of our World Cup players. As champions everyone will want to beat us, but that is the challenge for us to meet."
For their part, although conceding that Pool "double" to Toulouse last season, Edinburgh Rugby coach Frank Hadden believes they will give the defending champions a far greater challenge this time. "We are really looking forward to locking horns with Toulouse again," he said. "They were a bridge to far for us last season but I feel we are far better equipped to cope with them now."
Northampton Saints travel to Stradey Park in Round 1 with Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli Scarlets' Director of Rugby, declaring: "Northampton are a huge threat in our group and we are going to have to make home advantage count. They are a quality side - but having an Anglo-Welsh game for our starter will certainly spice things up nicely."
Leinster Lions Team Manager Ken Ging said: "We are delighted to kick-off the tournament at home, to start in front of our supporters. We have the utmost respect for Biarritz - we only just squeezed past them in the quarter-finals last season - and we appreciate they are one of the very best sides in Europe."
SU Agen and The Borders are the only teams new to the tournament - and they go head-to-head at Stade Armandie in Round 1 - while Italian champions Benetton Treviso have the tough home opener of entertaining Gloucester.
"The pleasure for us in being in such a tough Pool," said Treviso coach Craig Green. "It means we will be up against quality opposition in every game and, although starting with Gloucester is a great challenge, those are the sort of games we - and all the Italian clubs - need to test ourselves and make progress."
Jean-Pierre Lux, ERC Chairman, said: "The Heineken Cup is now gathering fascinating 'history' with each season - and this is evident in so many absorbing matches that promise to give us a flying start to the 2003 / 2004 competition.
"The early release of these group fixtures - almost five months before the kick-off to the tournament - will give the teams and their supporters ample time to make arrangements for what has all the makings of a classic competition."
NB: The re-structuring of the professional club game in Wales means the five new regional teams will take part in the Heineken Cup 2003 / 2004 tournament. Llanelli and Cardiff - now Llanelli Scarlets and Cardiff Blues - were not involved in any mergers. The other three new regions involved amalgamations of clubs. The new names for the remaining mergers (with the former clubs in brackets) are Celtic Warriors (Bridgend and Pontypridd), Gwent Dragons (Newport and Ebbw Vale) and The Ospreys (Neath and Swansea).
THE 2003 / 2004 HEINEKEN CUP POOLS
POOL 1: Stade Francais, Leicester Tigers, Gwent Dragons, Ulster
POOL 2: Leeds Tykes, The Ospreys, Edinburgh Rugby, Toulouse
POOL 3: Sale Sharks, Cardiff Blues, Leinster Lions, Biarritz Olympique
POOL 4: SU Agen, The Borders, Llanelli Scarlets, Northampton Saints
POOL 5: Bourgoin, Munster, Benetton Treviso, Gloucester
POOL 6: Celtic Warriors, Ghial Amatori & Calvisano, London Wasps, Perpignan
THE 2003 / 2004 HEINEKEN CUP FIXTURES
ROUND 1 - 5 / 6/ 7 DECEMBER, 2003
POOL 1: Stade Francais v Leicester Tigers; Gwent Dragons v Ulster
POOL 2: Leeds Tykes v The Ospreys; Edinburgh Rugby v Toulouse
POOL 3: Sale Sharks v Cardiff Blues; Leinster Lions v Biarritz Olympique
POOL 4: SU Agen v The Borders; Llanelli Scarlets v Northampton Saints
POOL 5: Bourgoin v Munster; Benetton Treviso v Gloucester
POOL 6: Celtic Warriors v Ghial Amatori & Calvisano; London Wasps v Perpignan
ROUND 2 - 12 / 13 / 14 DECEMBER
POOL 1: Leicester Tigers v Gwent Dragons; Ulster v Stade Francais
POOL 2: The Ospreys v Edinburgh Rugby; Toulouse v Leeds Tykes
POOL 3: Cardiff Blues v Leinster Lions; Biarritz Olympique v Sale Sharks
POOL 4: The Borders v Llanelli Scarlets; Northampton Saints v SU Agen
POOL 5: Munster v Benetton Treviso; Gloucester v Bourgoin
POOL 6: Ghial Amatori & Calvisano v London Wasps; Perpignan v Celtic Warriors
ROUND 3 - 9 / 10 / 11 JANUARY, 2004
POOL 1: Gwent Dragons v Stade Francais; Ulster v Leicester Tigers
POOL 2: Edinburgh Rugby v Leeds Tykes; Toulouse v The Ospreys
POOL 3: Leinster Lions v Sale Sharks; Biarritz Olympique v Cardiff Blues
POOL 4: Llanelli Scarlets v SU Agen; Northampton Saints v The Borders
POOL 5: Benetton Treviso v Bourgoin; Gloucester v Munster
POOL 6: London Wasps v Celtic Warriors; Perpignan v Ghial Amatori & Calvisano
ROUND 4 - 16 / 17 / 18 JANUARY
POOL 1: Stade Francais v Gwent Dragons; Leicester Tigers v Ulster
POOL 2: Leeds Tykes v Edinburgh Rugby; The Ospreys v Toulouse
POOL 3: Sale Sharks v Leinster Lions; Cardiff Blues v Biarritz Olympique
POOL 4: SU Agen v Llanelli Scarlets; The Borders v Northampton Saints
POOL 5: Bourgoin v Benetton Treviso; Munster v Gloucester
POOL 6: Celtic Warriors v London Wasps; Ghial Amatori & Calvisano v Perpignan
ROUND 5 - 23 / 24 / 25 JANUARY
POOL 1: Stade Francais v Ulster; Gwent Dragons v Leicester Tigers
POOL 2: Leeds Tykes v Toulouse; Edinburgh Rugby v The Ospreys
POOL 3: Sale Sharks v Biarritz Olympique; Leinster Lions v Cardiff Blues
POOL 4: SU Agen v Northampton Saints; Llanelli Scarlets v The Borders
POOL 5: Bourgoin v Gloucester; Benetton Treviso v Munster
POOL 6: Celtic Warriors v Perpignan; London Wasps v Ghial Amatori & Calvisano
ROUND 6 - 30 / 31 JANUARY 1 FEBRUARY
POOL 1: Ulster v Gwent Dragons; Leicester Tigers v Stade Francais
POOL 2: Toulouse v Edinburgh Rugby; The Ospreys v Leeds Tykes
POOL 3: Biarritz Olympique v Leinster Lions; Cardiff Blues v Sale Sharks
POOL 4: Northampton Saints v Llanelli Scarlets; The Borders v SU Agen
POOL 5: Gloucester v Benetton Treviso; Munster v Bourgoin
POOL 6: Perpignan v London Wasps; Ghial Amatori & Calvisano v Celtic Warriors
Heineken Cup quarter-finals: 9 / 10 / 11 April
Heineken Cup semi-finals: 24 / 25 April
Heineken Cup final: 22 / 23 May
All ERC press releases and statements are available on the official ERC website: WWW.ERCRUGBY.COM
18 July, 2003