European rugby has been on the back-burner. For ages, it has seemed to be somewhere out there in the distance.
Yet, all of a sudden, it is standing over Ulster with the potential for the province to achieve greatness or alternatively feel small and insignificant, a spectator on the fringes of Europe.
In my opinion, it is the best club competition in the world — every round and game has some sort of sub-plot, there is no quarter given at any stage and invariably qualification for the knockout stages goes down to the wire.
It is also a brutally difficult competition — effectively six matches akin to Cup finals which have to be navigated, and that’s before you get to the quarter finals.
It also has the potential to put a team on the map.
Unquestionably, Ulster’s passage out of the qualifying stages last year created quite a stir and suddenly the province was a team to be watched, feared and maybe, most importantly, respected.
The ‘Ravenhill factor’ was talked about once again as the sense of fortress was stirred back into life.
In order for Ulster to build on the progress made last year, they need some sort of success in this season’s competition.
On paper, Pool 4 looks ominous with French giants, Clermont Auvergne, perennial warriors and competitors, Leicester Tigers, while even the so-called minnows, Aironi, will be stronger for their experiences last season.
But, what constitutes success? Should Ulster gain top spot, it would be a magnificent achievement but, should this not happen (and there will be plenty other quality teams who will miss out), it would not necessarily consign the squad to failure.
The merits of this season’s campaign will be judged on the team’s ability to remain unbeaten at home and make a serious dent in the opposition in the away fixtures.
While home success is a precondition for success, away performances and points are the key differentiators. Ulster must come away from France and England with something to show for their efforts.
It has been said so often that you cannot win the Heineken Cup in the early stages but you can certainly rule yourself out. Given the quality of opposition, the Ulster players cannot afford to look any further ahead than this Saturday afternoon.
Clermont Auvergne have been strolling through the Top 14, putting bagfuls of points on teams, while their defence has also been exceptional.
It is their centenary year, they have just extended coach, Vern Cotter’s, contract and are strongly-placed in the Top 14.
In short, they are happy. However, a chink of light appeared last weekend when they got thumped by Stade Francais. In itself this counts for little — the game was played at the Stade de France and the home side was ‘meant’ to win.
That’s how it works sometimes in France.
Occasionally, as we all know, French teams don’t want to know on the road.
This must give Brian McLaughlin and his men plenty of hope.
The key to their success will be to create the same sort of home mentality and conditions, thereby penetrating the brittle Clermont psyche.
They might have stardust on their teamsheet and a foreboding domestic record in the Top 14, but so often, we have seen that these count for little when the whistle blows in Belfast.
The tone will be set in the first twenty minutes. You cannot afford to be ill-disciplined
and gift cheap opportunities to establish territory or score points.
It is intense stuff, but it is all about concentrating on the basics. What are those basics? Maybe it is best summed up by a recent quote from Jonny Wilkinson, who said that for him, ‘the pure basics of rugby are not passing, catching, kicking: the basics are simply working yourself in to the ground and doing whatever it takes for 80 minutes.’
The players and spectators need to establish a firm partnership right from the warm-up stages — do not underestimate the power of the 16th man in Heineken fixtures.
Lose and it could be terminal, but a victory of any sort would be the perfect launching pad for a serious assault on the competition again this year. Let battle commence.