Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Ulster must tame Tigers

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe

Ulster and Leicester Tigers will renew hostilities in next season's Heineken Cup.

Having beaten Northampton Saints in the Twickenham final on May 25, the east Midlanders will travel to Belfast as 2013 Aviva Premiership champions.

But, in addition, they will come in the knowledge that Ravenhill has been a particularly unhappy and unproductive hunting ground for them in the past.

Leicester's two heaviest defeats in European club rugby's premier competition have been at Ulster's hands in Belfast.

On January 11, 2004, the Tigers were mauled 33-0 in a match which created history on two counts; not only was it Leicester's worst ever Heineken Cup defeat up to that point, it was the first time Ulster had ever lined out at Ravenhill on a Sunday.

Things went even worse for Leicester when they came calling once again eight years later. But if the date was unlucky for the Tigers, for Ulster supporters Friday, January 13, 2012 will live long in the memory for all the right reasons. They trounced their Premiership guests 41-7 that night.

In what is a very difficult foursome, Ulster and Leicester Tigers are the tier one and tier two sides respectively in Pool Five, with French side Montpellier and Italian franchise Treviso installed as the third and fourth tier teams.

It is worth noting that Montpellier – who reached the Top 14 play-offs at which stage they exited to Castres, the eventual winners – beat this year's Heineken Cup winners Toulon 23-3 in last season's group stage.

En route to the quarter-finals where they were beaten by Clermont, Montpellier also exploded the myth that French sides do not travel well, beating both Cardiff Blues and Sale home and away.

The Italians have been grouped with Ulster before. Back in 2001-02 Ulster scored a home and away European double at Treviso's expense, winning 33-28 at Stadio di Monigo and 59-3 in the return leg in Belfast.

It was the same story in 2005-06 when the sides met again – Ulster won 27-0 at home and 43-26 in Italy.

Treviso have improved somewhat in the interim, of course. They finished seventh of the dozen runners in last season's RaboDirect PRO12.

In the season before that they had created history when, on October 7, 2011, they became the first Italian side ever to beat Ulster. They did so in Belfast, too, with the hosts' 23-12 defeat being the lowest point in a damaging dip in form.

Interestingly, in the aftermath of his Leinster side's PRO12 final victory over Ulster at the RDS on May 25, now-Ireland coach Joe Schmidt singled out Treviso as outsiders when asked about possible top four finishers next term. They are no soft touch.

Ulster's Director of Rugby David Humphreys said: "It was never going to be easy but overall we are happy with the draw.

"Leicester, as reigning English Champions, will be a huge challenge.

"Montpellier we have never faced before, so this is an exciting prospect, and in terms of Treviso, we know them well – previous encounters have been tight so they are certainly a threat in the group."

The other three Irish provinces face big challenges, too.

PRO12 winners Leinster are in Pool One with Aviva Premiership runners-up Northampton Saints, Ospreys and newly-crowned Top 14 champions Castres. Tough group, that. Very tough.

Munster – like Ulster and Leinster, a top tier club – are in Pool Six with Perpignan, Edinburgh and Gloucester, while third tier Connacht are in Pool Three with Toulouse, Saracens and Zebre.

Like Pool One, the scramble to escape from Pool Four promises to be intense.

There the beaten finalists in 2013, Clermont Auvergne, and 2011 English champions, Harlequins, are joined by Scarlets and money-stuffed Racing Metro whose line-up, of course, will include Lions colleagues Jonny Sexton and Jamie Roberts.

It's going to be fascinating to see how well and how quickly that pair bed into French football and life in Paris in general.

Heineken Cup holders Toulon, with European Player of the Year Jonny Wilkinson on board for a further season, are joined by Cardiff Blues, Glasgow Warriors and Exeter in Pool Two.

Heineken Cup draw: Pool 1: Leinster, Northampton, Ospreys, Castres.

Pool 2: Toulon, Cardiff Blues, Glasgow, Exeter.

Pool 3: Toulouse, Saracens, Connacht, Zebre.

Pool 4: Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins, Scarlets, Racing Metro.

Pool 5: Ulster, Leicester, Montpellier, Treviso.

Pool 6: Munster, Perpignan, Edinburgh, Gloucester.

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