Former Ulster skipper, Andy Ward, says Ulster can roar into a great start in this season's Heineken Cup campaign
Published 23/07/2013 | 01:30
Ulster face a mouth-watering start to this season's Heineken Cup campaign when they host Aviva Premiership champions Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill for the opening fixture in Pool Five on Friday October 11.
Even though there is still considerable uncertainty regarding the future of the competition, over the long standing dispute with the English and French clubs over the tournament's future structure, normal is pressing on regardless and the Tigers' visit to Belfast looks set to be one of the plum ties in the opening round and gives Ulster a great chance to use home advantage to get their campaign off to a positive start.
Mark Anscombe's squad – who topped Pool Four last season but then lost in their away quarter-final to Saracens at Twickenham – will be seeking to emulate the notable thumpings handed out to Leicester on the previous two occasions they have met in Heineken Cup rugby at Ravenhill which saw the Premiership side famously turned over 33-0 in 2004 and then beaten again by a margin of 41-7 in 2012, the year that Ulster went all the way to the final before losing out to Leinster at Twickenham.
Ulster will also be looking to register a first European away result at the Tigers' Welford Road ground, which is their final pool game in January.
Former Ulster skipper Andy Ward played in the 2004 game and scored two tries that day and he feels that Anscombe's squad can make it a hat-trick of European home wins over their English opponents – and that they can also go on to again qualify for the knockout stages.
"It's a tough one first up as their (Leicester's) pedigree is second to none but I can't see why Ulster can't win this one," European Cup winner Ward said.
"Ulster's home record is getting strong again and no team will want to come to Ravenill especially first up.
"But you've got to be careful you don't hype it up too much," Ward cautioned when reflecting on last season's damaging home reverse to Northampton Saints which followed on from one of Ulster's greatest wins which was achieved at Franklin's Gardens.
"Having said that, this Ulster side is fairly unchanged which is certainly no bad thing and if they can stay fit and hopefully get Stephen Ferris out charging about again then I feel that they can get through and maybe even take it on a step further."
Ulster – who are seeking to reach the last eight for the fourth year running – then travel to meet Montpellier on Saturday October 19 before they meet Treviso in their pivotal back-to-back clashes on Saturday December 7 in Belfast and then a week later travelling to Italy for the return encounter.
Their Pool Five campaign is rounded off in January against Montpellier at Ravenhill and then what could be a vital tie at Leicester Tigers. Dates and kick-off times for the final two fixtures have yet to be confirmed.
"Ulster can hopefully do a job against Treviso home and away," Ward added, "and even though they struggled over there last year in the League I'd be confident that a close to full strength Ulster will get what is required from both games.
"They key will be what Ulster can get away at Montpellier and then at Leicester and it will be a boost to them that they have the monkey off their backs regarding winning over in France."