Ulster plan Heineken Cup scenic route
There are two unmistakable signs that Heineken Cup time has come round – media interest soars and Ulster push the boat out by doing things in a manner guaranteed to focus minds on the fact that this is special.
Heineken Cup games are good suit occasions. As well as being kitted out impeccably, the players and sometimes their families, too, are treated to a degree of pampering far beyond anything on offer for the bread and butter of RaboDirect PRO12 action.
The weekend just ended provided an example, with the Ulster players and their nearest and dearest having spent time relaxing – and, in the case of the combatants, recuperating – at the four-star Slieve Donard Hotel where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea at Newcastle.
Owned by the Hastings Group who are among the Ulster sponsors, facilities include a 22-metre swimming pool, luxury spa, sauna, steam room, aerobics studio and well-equipped gym, so one does not have to look too far for the reasons behind the choice of retreat.
And there's the not-so-small matter that Newcastle, with its sea-and-mountains combination, is Ulster captain Johann Muller's favourite place in Northern Ireland.
But the weekend was not so much about enjoying that sizeable pool as starting to focus minds on the challenges posed by the Heineken Cup pool in which Ulster find themselves.
Last season's grouping was daunting, with Northampton Saints, Glasgow Warriors and Castres Olympique having provided Mark Anscombe's side's group-stage opposition. But a bonus-point victory at Saints' Franklins Gardens home and a first-ever win in a competitive fixture on French soil contributed to Ulster topping that foursome and underlined their status as genuine contenders for European glory.
This time their pool opponents are Leicester Tigers, Montpellier and Benetton Treviso. Again, that's tough: Leicester are the reigning English Aviva Premiership champions, while Montpellier are wedged between leaders Toulon – last season's Heineken Cup winners - and third-placed Toulouse in French rugby's Top 14.
And while Treviso are the weakest of the Pool 5 quartet, nevertheless their ranks feature most of the Italian national side which finished fourth in last season's Six Nations, above Ireland and France whose scalps they took.
All sides aim to take to the Heineken Cup stage buoyed up by success in their most recent outings. And while Ulster accounted for Ospreys, 18-12, Leicester were lucky to escape with a share of the spoils from their meeting with Northampton at Welford Road where it finished 19-19.
Ulster v Leicester at Ravenhill is Friday night's curtain-raiser; what a contest that promises to be.
Treviso host Montpellier the following afternoon at Stadio Comunale di Monigo and both will go into this one bolstered by big weekend wins. The Italians trounced Connacht 23-3 on Friday night, while the French were 45-20 winners against visiting Oyonnax who leaked six tries, all of which were converted by home out-half Benoît Paillaugue.