Montauban surprised a lot of people - except, you suspect, themselves - last year with some impressive displays in their first ever season in European competition which saw them progress to the quarter-finals of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup. Only a last gasp Ollie Barkley penalty denied them the chance of taking Bath into sudden death at the Recreation Ground in what turned out to be one of the most compelling ties of the entire tournament.
This form has been carried into this season, having already added the scalp of Toulouse to an ever lengthening list of victims. The Heineken Cup Champions were accounted for in the French Cup - itself a Heineken Cup qualifying competition - a result which must give a huge confidence boost for their coming European campaign.
London Irish on the other hand will be looking for better things after a forgettable Heineken Cup campaign last season. After the initial encouraging display away to Toulouse they stuttered through the group and were never really contenders. The remainder of the season was concentrated on scrapping for Zurich Premiership survival. The Irish will expect an improvement this season having recruited Heineken Cup runner-up, Phil Murphy, and former England international, Nick Greenstock.
Connacht / Beziers is the other tie which catches the eye in what is a very strong top half of the draw. Ex-Irish captain and most capped Irish scrum half, Michael Bradley, has had a successful start as Connacht coach as the province continues to defy the odds having recently completed a hat-trick of victories over the Scottish provinces. The possibility of a quarter-final meeting with London Irish is a mouth-watering prospect and should be incentive enough for the west of Ireland side who should once again prove to be as competitive as ever in Europe.
Beziers on the other hand must be delighted to be back in European competition again having replaced relegated Bordeaux-Begles due to financial difficulties. While they might be experiencing tough times on the pitch recently Connacht would be foolish to underestimate a side which can draw on last year's Heineken Cup experience.
With Heineken Cup qualification the added carrot for all teams with aspirations of winning, the European Challenge Cup is sure to once again produce some great rugby and many memorable matches. The fact that the eventual champions of both the Zurich Premiership and French Championship (Top 16) were involved last time out is proof of the quality of rugby needed to succeed in a tournament which has now firmly established itself amongst the elite in the northern hemisphere.