“It could have been a whole lot worse.”
That was the response of most Ulster supporters to Tuesday’s draw for the 2013 Heineken Cup in which last season's runners-up have been grouped with Northampton Saints, Glasgow Warriors and Castres Olympique in Pool 4.
The draw was made at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium which will be the venue for next May’s final, the 18th in the history of what has become the biggest club rugby tournament north of the equator.
Jean-Pierre Lux, chairman of the ERC, and Derek McGrath, the organising body’s chief executive, were in attendance to underline the importance of yesterday’s proceedings.
From an Ulster perspective, it certainly has created an intriguing scenario. They find themselves in the company of Northampton who eliminated them at the quarter-final stage in 2011, Glasgow — their old RaboDirect PRO12 adversaries who reached that competition’s play-offs last season — and 2012 French Top 14 semi-finalists Castres with whom ex-Ulster pair Jeremy Davidson and Mark McCall worked in tandem during an earlier dispensation.
And adding further spice to the meetings with those three clubs will be the fact that Roger Wilson has just re-joined Ulster from Northampton, while former Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg — the man he was recruited to replace — has signed for Castres.
As a result, Wilson (pictured) and Wannenburg will find themselves facing one another as well as lining out against men alongside whom they played in last season’s competition.
And there will be an old-comrade angle to Ulster’s meeting with Glasgow, too, winger Tommy Seymour having left Ravenhill for Firhill 12 months ago.
All things considered, it is a pretty good draw from an Ulster viewpoint.
They have avoided French giants Toulouse and Biarritz who were among the four tier one representatives they could have drawn. In tier three they got Glasgow rather than Mark McCall’s Saracens or last term’s PRO12 winners Ospreys.
And with Racing Metro, Montpellier and difficult-to-beat-at-home Treviso among the fourth tier opponents, Ulster might have drawn, they cannot but feel other than pleased with the outcome.
That said, all three away days will present considerable challenges; Franklins Gardens, Firhill Stadium and Stade Pierre Antoine are difficult venues.
Bear in mind, too, the facts that Bath are the only English opponents on whose pitch Ulster have won since the inception of rugby’s European Cup in 1995/96, that they have never managed victory on French soil and that in last season’s PRO12 clash with Glasgow at Firhill, they lost 17-9.
Of course, having reached last season’s Heineken Cup final, Ulster have raised their own bar somewhat. “Follow that,” was the challenge thrown down by former coach Brian McLaughlin to his successor, New Zealander Mark Anscombe, who arrived in the province last weekend but will not meet the players until Monday, June 25 when the first of them start to return following their close-season break.
Director of Rugby David Humphreys summed up the feelings of Ulster fans with his reaction.
“On the whole we are happy with the draw; it could have been better and it could have been worse,” he said.
“There are two very difficult pools and there are a couple of pools which are probably a little bit easier. All four teams will probably look at the pool and think they have a realistic chance of progressing.”
He added: “We played the Saints in the 2011 quarter-finals and witnessed first hand how powerful a team they are.
“We know Glasgow really well from our league meetings and there is no doubt they are a team who are evolving and have shown dramatic improvement. Likewise Castres, who have just come off the back of a very good Top 14 campaign and have proved how difficult they are to beat.
“The top teams have shown that to win competitions like the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirect PRO12, you have to build sustained success over a period of time. You see teams making the knockout stages one season but then they can’t get out of their group the following year. The challenge for us is to be consistently making the last eight.”
And that, according to Humpreys, will helped by the new additions to the squad, with Wilson and Tommy Bowe making returns to Ravenhill.
“I think next year our squad will be stronger; over the past two seasons our young players have gained experience of competing at the top end of European competition. We also have more players playing International rugby and that will stand us in good stead too,” he said.
Ulster Rugby chief executive Shane Logan also expressed his satisfaction with the draw.
“We’re very pleased. It’s a very competitive group, but it’s good for us in terms of the opportunity of qualifying and also commercially,” he said.
Pools 2 and 5 are two particularly strong, with Toulouse, Leicester, Ospreys and Treviso in the former and holders Leinster, Clermont, Scarlets and Exeter in the latter.
What awaits Ulster?
Key man – England hooker Dylan Hartley (right) whose leadership is central to everything the Saints do
Director of Rugby – Jim Mallinder
Heineken Cup record – 2000 (winners), 2001 (eliminated at group stage), 2002 (eliminated at group stage), 2003 (beaten quarter-finalists), 2004 (eliminated at group stage), 2005 (beaten quarter-finalists), 2007 (beaten semi-finalists), 2010 (beaten quarter-finalists), 2011 (beaten finalists), 2012 (eliminated at group stage)
Aviva Premiership 2011/12 – finished 4th. Beaten by Harlequins in 1st v 4th place play-off
Key man – South African back row forward and former Ulster lynchpin Pedrie Wannenburg (right), who knows the opposition inside out and will relish facing his old buddies.
Coaches - Laurent Travers (forwards), Laurent Labit (backs)
Heineken Cup record – 2001 (eliminated at group stage), 2002 (beaten semi-finalists), 2005-2007 inclusive (eliminated at group stage), 2009, 2011 & 2012 (eliminated at group stage).
Top 14 2011/12 – finished 4th. Beaten by Toulouse in 1st v 4th place play-off
Key man – Scotland lock Richie Gray (right), a powerful giant of a forward who excels in both set-pieces and in the loose
Head coach – Gregor Townsend
Heineken Cup record – 1998 (beaten quarter-finalists), 1999-2012 inclusive (eliminated at group stage each season)
RaboDirect PRO12 2011/12 – finished 4th. Beaten by Leinster in 1st v 4th place play-off