THE PRECISE MAKE-UP of the Heineken Cup group stages are yet to be finalised.
But at least our four provinces now know the fixtures which will shape their season.
Everywhere you look there is history, familiar faces, re-opening of old wounds.
The obvious stand-out meeting is between the two strongest teams in the 2012 Heineken Cup.
Clermont Auvergne and Leinster played out a thrilling 15-19 semi-final in the white hot atmosphere of Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban Delmas.
These teams were already more familiar than either would want to be, having met three times in eight months before that.
Of four Titanic tussles, Leinster currently lead the series 3-1, but the margins remain unbearably tight. Had Wesley Fofana managed to ground the ball in the semi-final Leinster would be eyeing the group encounters as a grudge match. Instead, they can ride in as kings of Europe.
As was the case in December 2010, when the sides met in back to back weeks, Leinster will want to get their trip to Massif Central out of the way nice and early so they will know the needed when they return to the the Aviva.
The presence of the Exeter Chiefs and Llanelli (now coached by Simon Easterby, former Irish international and brother to Leinster manager, Guy) will by no means be straight forward, but neither will be in the mix for the quarter-final stages.
Wesley Fofana and Clermont celebrate what they thought was a winning try against Leinster. / ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Even with all the change surrounding Munster, they too will have a coach visiting old friends. Newly appointed backs coach, Simon Mannix, will be out to put one over his previous employers, Racing Metro. He departed the Paris club on a sour note, sacked and scape-goated by Pierre Berbizier for a poor season’s results.
Munster will also welcome back a former son in the shape of Michael Bradley. Make no bones about it, with the Heineken Cup semi-finalists alongside Saracens, this is not the group Rob Penney would have asked for to get the ball rolling on his red revolution.
He will want to meet Edinburgh early and in Thomond Park to knock any lingering confidence out of them. Ideally, that would be followed by a trip to Paris. However, the group will be decided by the results with the Aviva Premiership semi-finalists.
Connacht, must the most content of Ireland’s teams. Not only because they are the side unburdened by pressure to escape the group, but also because they have been handed some achievable goals.
Last season, Eric Elwood had to contend with the majesty of Toulouse and the tough nuts of Gloucester. This time around, with extra experience under their belts, they will welcome a flagging and uninspiring Biarritz to the Sportsground along with the brand spanking new Italian franchise, Zebre.
The common component between 2012 and 2013 is, of course, Harlequins.
Conor O’Shea’s men suffered in the final pool game last season, but they will come back hoping to prove they have lessons learned and that Premiership medals count for something.
We do not yet know the make-up of Zebre’s playing staff, but the western province will already be targeting two wins against the rookies. It will not matter when they play the others – as long as there is wind and rain aplenty when they do.
And finally we have Ulster. Under Brian McLaughlin they gradually fought their way up the European ladder. But now McLaughlin is gone, and so is Pedrie Wannenburg and Stefan Terblanche.
The challenge for Mark Anscombe will be to get anywhere near the heights of his predecessor. Having Northampton in the group will provide a painful reminder of the 2011 quarter-final defeat at Franklins Gardens, so hopefully that pain will be enough to inspire a couple of big performances.
Castres and Glasgow will ensure winning bonus points extremely hard to come by for any side, but if Ulster are to get out of the pool for the third year in a row they will want to meet and beat Castres at Ravenhill early on.
It would be best to avoid a trip to Glasgow in the depth of winter, but whenever the games fall, they will make for another intriguing season.