Ulster will have to it the hard way if they are to equal or better last season’s Heineken Cup heroics.
TIGERS AND CLERMONT will be the bigGEST threats to RAVENHILL MENOld foes: Ulster legend Andy Ward goes over to score a try against Leicester when the clubs last met in the Heineken Cup seven years ago
Yesterday’s draw, made at Twickenham which will host the 17th European Rugby Cup final on Saturday, May 19, 2012 saw Brian McLaughlin’s side — quarter-finalists last term — grouped in Pool 4 with English Aviva Premiership giants Leicester Tigers, French Top 14 club ASM Clermont Auvergne and big-spending Italian outfit Aironi.
Two-times European champions Leicester reached the quarter-finals last season, at which stage title-bound Leinster lowered the English side’s colours at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium where it finished 17-10 to the hosts.
This will not be the first time Ulster and Leinster have locked horns in Europe; they met at the group stage in 2003/04.
The Ravenhill match ended 33-0 in Ulster’s favour, but when the sides clashed again a week later at Welford Road Leicester gained revenge for that drubbing by chalking up a 49-7 win of their own.
Having drawn such difficult opponents from the first tier, Ulster were hoping for a kinder outcome when the tier two balls were rattled. The options were Northampton Saints, Clermont, Ospreys, Bath, Harlequins and London Irish.
Ulster drew the French side — another particularly tough opponent.
True, Clermont’s European pedigree is not formidable and certainly not as awesome as Leicester’s record. Three quarter-final appearances since 1999/2000 is not the sort of statistic to send tremors down spines.
But Clermont did manage to clip Leinster’s wings last season. They beat the eventual champions 20-13 when they squared up in France with that group stage defeat being Joe Schmidt’s men’s only reversal en route to the title.
It was a result which confirmed that the 16,035-capacity Stade Marcel Michelin is a daunting, seldom-breached fortress and in view of Ulster’s results on French soil it is highly unlikely they will be handicapped by complacency when they venture forth.
Thirteen trips to France have seen Ulster lose 12 times, the exception to that depressing norm being a 35-35 draw with Toulouse back in 2000/01.
Away day defeats by Toulouse (39-3 in 1998/99), Bourgoin (26-12 in 1999/2000), Stade Francais (40-11 in 2001/02), Biarritz Olympique (25-20 in 2002/03), Stade Francais (13-10 in 2003/04), Stade Francais (30-10 in 2004/05), Biarritz Olympique (33-19 in 2005/06), Toulouse 28-13 in 2006/07), Bourgoin (24-17 in 2007/08), Stade Francais (24-19 in 2008/09), Stade Francais (29-16 in 2009/10) and Biarritz Olympique (35-15 in 2010/11) tell their own story.
The grim truth and harsh reality is that Ulster have never won a European Cup game in France.
That said, prior to 2009/10 they had never won a competitive fixture on English soil, either. Finally, in what was McLaughlin’s first season in charge, they laid that hoodoo by beating Bath home and away.
And, just to prove that was no one-off, last season they repeated the stunt by way of encore.
With Benetton Treviso, Aironi and French trio Castres Olympique, Montpellier and Racing Metro 92 the tier four incumbents, Ulster were hoping to draw one or other of the Italian pair and to that end they got their wish.
For the second successive season they will play Aironi four times, twice in the Celtic League and twice in the Heineken Cup.
Having beaten the Italians on all four occasions in 2010/11 Ulster know the draw could have been a lot worse.
But they can ill-afford to underestimate Aironi who finished bottom of the league in what was their first season in the competition.
The Viadana-based men have made it very plain that they are determined to avoid any repetition of last term’s embarrassment with that baptism of fire serving only to steel their resolve.
Just ahead of yesterday’s Heineken Cup draw they announced six new signings.
The most significant of those are Hurricanes half-back Tyson Keats, who has won back-to-back championships for Canterbury in the Air New Zealand Cup and Cheetahs fly-half Naas Olivier.
Olivier is joined from South Africa by Cheetahs colleague Frans Viljoen, the 28-year-old loose forward who won the Top 14 championship whilst with Stade Francais, after which he had five Super Rugby seasons with the Cheetahs.
Meanwhile, the draw has dealt kindly with holders, Leinster, whose Pool Three opposition is provided by Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier.
In Pool One, Munster will face last season’s runners-up, Northampton Saints, plus Scarlets and Castres Olympique, while Heineken Cup first-timers Connacht go head to head with French giants Toulouse, and English pair Harlequins and Gloucester in Pool Six.