Heineken Cup: How to conquer a continent, the Ulster way
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin and captain Rory Best reckon last season’s heartache has taught them a thing or two about Heineken Cup survival.
Games against Aironi at Ravenhill this Friday night followed by Biarritz Olympique in San Sebastian on Sunday week will provide the first two tests of the 2010-11 tournament.
Both men admit Ulster must raise their game if they are to achieve their target of progressing beyond the group stage.
“Push on and take it up another level,” said McLaughlin. “Find third or fourth gear,” is how Best put it at the Irish launch of the Heineken Cup in Dublin’s iconic Canal Court Theatre.
The coaches and captains of Leinster and Munster – Ireland’s other two representatives – were in attendance, too, albeit that neither Leo Cullen nor Paul O’Connell will play any on-field part in the tournament until round 3, in mid-December, at the earliest.
Both Cullen, the Leinster captain, and O’Connell, his Munster counterpart, are edging their way back from long-term injury problems which have sidelined them since the latter stage of last season and Ireland’s last RBS 6 Nations match respectively.
Best can sympathise with his international colleagues, having missed all of last season’s Heineken Cup campaign through injury.
Clearly keen to make up for lost time, he is a man for whom the start can’t come quickly enough. His sights are fixed; he knows what is required.
“The big thing for us so far this season has been the tight games. If we’ve been a couple of points up with 10 minutes to go, over the past couple of years more often than not we’d lose that game.
“This season. In the tight games we’ve held on and we’ve got our wins.”
“We know we have to go out and get something from every single game, preferably a win and, if not, then at least a point.
“That is especially the case in the Heineken Cup. It’s such an intense competition.
“Something that we found last season is that one point can make such a vast difference.”
There is little doubt that the memory of what befell them last season – when despite winning four of their six pool matches they failed to reach the last eight – will serve to motivate Ulster.
McLaughlin recalled: “Last year we were very disappointed to come out of Edinburgh with a loss when we thought we’d performed quite well but then let it slip at the end.
“Against Stade (Francais) we didn’t perform as well over there as we’d hoped, but we had a bit of a tour round Europe that day and ended up going to Paris not knowing whether or not the match would be played.
“But we were very pleased with our result in Bath, our first ever victory in England and it gave us something to kick on from.
“So we were very disappointed the next day when results didn’t go our way and we ended up going out of both competitions (Heineken Cup and Amlin Cup).
“That’s living long in the memory and hopefully it’s something that will push us on this season.”