Bad Belfast memories flood back for Toby
Toby Flood, the England fly-half and Leicester Tigers captain, is anxious to avoid an ignominious Ravenhill hat-trick tomorrow night.
The English Premiership title holders return to Belfast in the knowledge that they have been blown away on each of their two previous Heineken Cup visits.
On Sunday, January 11, 2004, the Martin Johnson-captained Tigers suffered a 33-0 pasting, at the time their worst ever Heineken Cup defeat.
Eight years later, on Friday, January 13, 2012, Leicester – by that stage led by Geordan Murphy, a veteran of that earlier drubbing – suffered a 41-7 thrashing which marked a new European low for the Welford Road men on two counts; most points conceded in a match, compounded by a worst ever 34-point differential. Ouch, ouch.
Given what has happened in the past, Flood warned: "Games in this tournament don't come much harder than having to face Ulster at Ravenhill on a Friday night and we know it is going to be a difficult start.
"It is as hard a place to go as any in Europe. But while we know what lies ahead of us, no team can afford to take Leicester Tigers lightly.
"We have a great pedigree in the Heineken Cup and, even though we haven't won it since 2002, we have been in two more finals since then.
"We've had two very bad nights at Ravenhill down the years. We lost 41-7 (below) in a pool match in 2012 and I believe it was even worse back in 2003/04 when Martin Johnson's side were beaten 33-0.
"They were battered by all accounts in that first game, though they turned it around with a comprehensive 49-7 win six days later back at Welford Road."
Although Flood did not feature in Leicester's 2012 Ravenhill drubbing, nevertheless he felt the pain of it.
"I didn't go to Belfast, but it was very disappointing," he said. "They played very well and we were poor. We can't afford for that to happen again."
Interestingly, the stand-off pinpointed Ulster's half-backs as posing a major threat to his side's Heineken Cup well-being.
"Ulster have a strong pack and have great tacticians behind to dictate their game. Ruan Pienaar will be coming into the tournament off the back of another strong performance with South Africa in the Rugby Championship and Paddy Jackson is a player who is simply going to get stronger and stronger over time," said 28-year-old Flood, whose head-on opponent is seven years his junior.
The 57 times-capped England international is all too well aware of how difficult it is to win on the road in Europe and of the importance of starting well.
"We know all about tough away games because we had to travel to Toulouse first up last season and lost 23-9. We had to come home and make amends for that defeat by beating the Ospreys at Welford Road in round two," he recalled.
With Toulouse, Ospreys and Benetton Treviso having provided their pool-stage opposition last season, the Tigers reached the quarter-finals at which point Toulon beat them 21-15 en route to winning the competition.
This time, as well as Ulster, it's Montpellier and Treviso – for the third season in a row in the case of the Italians – who are blocking the path to a 12th quarter-final.
Highlighting just how tough a group that is, Flood said: "We know from their recent results – including massive wins over Toulouse and Clermont and a draw with Toulon – how strong Montpellier are going to be this season. And nobody can afford to take Treviso lightly. We've had some close shaves against them in the past."
Their wretched Ravenhill record notwithstanding, Leicester's captain believes the players he leads have the motivation – and quality – to match what previous Tigers teams achieved.
"There is certainly a burning desire within the squad to reach the final again," he said.
His fancied runners? "When you look at this season then you'd expect Clermont to be up there again having been one of the best teams in Europe in recent years. Toulon have built on the squad that won the title last year and they look like they will attack it again," he warned.
"There are two or three good English clubs who will be pressing and the Ospreys will be a threat. Then you have to start thinking about the Irish provinces who have such a rich history in this tournament.
"That's what makes the Heineken Cup so good – you simply can't pick a winner."