The Heineken Cup has been a particularly steep learning curve for Ulster in the past two seasons.
Quarter-finalists in 2011 and runners-up in 2012, now they are hoping that the experience gained in the past two campaigns is going to stand them in very good stead.
After becoming the first Irish province to be crowned kings of Europe, there followed 12 barren seasons when they were unable to get out of their group.
Finally — under the tutelage of then-coach Brian McLaughlin —they made it through, whereupon they bowed out to Northampton Saints. They said they would make a positive of that and learn from it.
They did. Last year they beat two-times winners Munster — at Thomond Park, hitherto widely regarded as impregnable — in the quarter-final and then saw off Edinburgh in the penultimate round before losing to Leinster in the final. But now Ulster are hoping to do what they did last season, namely go one stage further than in the previous campaign.
Their appearance before a crowd of 82,000 at Twickenham on May 19 past is a still-fresh memory. And not just with Ulster players and supporters, for at yesterday’s Irish launch of the 2012/13 Heineken Cup, it was noticeable that the northern province was treated with considerably more respect than before.
The fact that in addition to having reached the final of last season’s European club rugby showpiece, they lead the current RaboDirect PRO12 race — in which they also boast the best for-against points differential of the 12 runners and have a game in hand against bottom-dwellers, Zebre - has earned Ulster fresh respectability.
Joe Schmidt, who last season guided Leinster to their third Heineken Cup success in four seasons, yesterday paid Ulster a huge compliment in pointing to their PRO12 credentials. “They have 17 points — you could say 21,” he said, confirming that he expects Ulster to win their outstanding game against the Italians in Parma.
Ulster captain Johann Muller recalled that when he attended the Heineken Cup launch in Dublin two years ago, the media focus had been on Leinster and Munster, with Ulster present purely in the role of poor relations. Nobody took their challenge seriously.
But yesterday Muller and coach Mark Anscombe were in demand from every television channel and radio station present. Journalists from all the magazines, daily newspapers and Sundays wanted interviews. Changed times.
Anscombe, however, made it clear that, in his opinion, Ulster’s run to last year’s final is neither here nor there in terms of this season’s challenge. The Kiwi stressed that teams change coaches, introduce new players and shift others on. So, like Ulster, most other outfits are different now. He said: “Although you respect the past, you’ve got to be careful that in any competition you don’t get caught up with what teams used to do.
“We have to look and see what they’re like this year. Some of these teams weren’t even playing in this competition a few years ago, but they have grown, improved and got to qualify for it.
“That shows you teams get better, so you cannot be fooled into thinking that they’re the same as last year.”
And showing typical focus, Anscombe pointed to the next task on his jobs-to-be-done list, namely Friday night’s PRO12 date with Connacht.
“We’re not thinking of Castres yet,” he insisted.
“Our focus is on this week at home against Connacht; that’s a job we need to do before we worry about anything else. We want to keep our momentum going in the Rabo and if we start getting distracted and don’t keep our focus on Connacht, they will beat us.”