David Humphreys, Ulster’s Director of Rugby, knows better than anyone from the province what it takes to mount a challenge for European club rugby’s biggest prize.
He was one of the heroes of 1999 when, in the absence of injured captain Mark McCall, he stepped up and filled the vacancy, duly leading Ulster to the trophy.
Speaking after yesterday’s draw at Twickenham, Humphreys admitted that Ulster had been consigned to a pool which will test them to the limit. But he showed no foreboding, instead expressing the conviction that Ulster have what it takes to make it to the knock-out stages for the second season on the trot.
“There is no doubt that this is a particularly difficult group, but there are no easy pools any more,” he pointed out.
Highlighting the calibre of the 24 runners, Humphreys continued: “If you look throughout the competition, there are many teams that could reach the quarter-finals.”
Nor did he downplay the quality of the opposition lying in wait of Brian McLaughlin’s charges.
“Leicester finished top of the Premiership last season and Clermont finished fourth in the Top 14, so that highlights their quality,” he warned.
But then came the sort of positivity which will delight Ulster followers.
“There is no doubt next season will be another step up for our players but we certainly have the ability to progress to the knock-out stages once again,” Humphreys added.
The coming season will be coach McLaughlin’s third in charge and his time at the tiller has seen significant improvement — witness inclusion in last term’s Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 12 years coupled with a third-place finish in the Magners League.
McLaughlin’s trio of Springboks — Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg — now have a full northern hemisphere campaign under their belts and with John Afoa and Jared Payne on their way from New Zealand, the Ulster line-up promises to be very strong.
McLaughlin said: “My initial reaction was ‘Wow, what a challenge!’ My next was ‘Wow, what an opportunity!’
“Can you imagine what Ravenhill is going to be like when Leicester come here?”