Bryn Cunningham has warned that Ulster must secure a home quarter-final if they are to have any hope of repeating the province’s European heroics of 1999.
Cunningham, a member of that famous European Cup winning squad, feels that a win on Saturday, thus avoiding a trip to Clermont or Toulon in the first knock-out stage, is imperative given the strength of the French rugby superpowers at home.
He said: “There's such a great squad here now, and it's certainly our best chance since 1999, but it's going to be so important to win on Saturday and make sure we're playing at Ravenhill rather than having to go somewhere like Clermont in the quarter-finals.
“I know we went to Thomond Park and won at that stage last year (against Munster), but it would be different having to go to France and get a result.”
Ulster, who have yet to beat Gallic opposition on their travels in European competition, go to Castres having already secured their place in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup, but will need a victory to ensure they remain in the top four seeds and are playing hosts when the competition resumes in April.
Despite Castres knowing they have no hope of progressing in the competition, Ulster's cause has not been helped by a wave of injuries, the in-form Nick Williams the latest to occupy a treatment room that already houses the considerable talents of Tommy Bowe, Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris and Dan Tuohy.
However, with the Six Nations international break looming, Cunningham feels that if Ulster's makeshift line-up can earn a win in the Stade Pierre-Antoine, they will be a real force when the competition returns in the spring.
“With the format of the competition, there is such a big gap now between the rounds compared to when we played so it means that things can really change with form and injuries.
“A win on Saturday before a lot of the players head off for the Six Nations would put Ulster in a great position with the injured players having a chance to recover before the next round.
“When we played it was completely different, with the games coming so quickly, and I remember David Humphreys having to come back from a dislocated shoulder in the space of a week or two to play in the final.
“If he hadn't managed it then I would have been out there at number 10 and the result could have been a bit different,” he joked.
Bryn Cunningham was speaking at an event held by the IRFU Charitable Trust which exists to help seriously injured players across Ireland.