Ulster pool a Cup cracker
Ulster stand their best chance of making the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time since lifting the trophy in 1999 after receiving a favourable draw for next season’s tournament which kicks off in October.
Ulster will face last year’s runners-up Biarritz, English Premiership side Bath and one of the new Italian teams Aironi Rugby in pool four.
It could have been worse for Brian McLaughlin’s men as Munster face the Ospreys, London Irish and Toulon in the group of death while Leinster have French champions Clermont, Saracens and Racing-Metro 92.
Ulster beat Bath home and away in the competition last season and in the process recorded their first win on English soil but McLaughlin knows it won’t be as easy this year as Bath rallied after the game at the Rec and forced their way to the Premiership semi-finals.
“We’re happy with the draw and it’s a fair group to have. There is a bit of formality there but we are under no illusions. There are no easy games,” he said.
“Bath have recruited well and they will want a bit of revenge. Aironi Rugby have recruited heavily and they won’t be as easy a touch as everybody thinks in the competition.
“They’ve signed Marco Bortolami from Gloucester and he is an exceptional lineout operator, and they are now more of a provincial side.”
Ulster won four out of six games in the pool stage last year but failed to make the quarter-finals and McLaughlin believes the team can learn lessons from that campaign.
“Last season will be a tremendous driving factor for us as there were key points in the Edinburgh and Stade Francais away games that we need to learn from, but we finished the season in good shape,” he said.
“If the boys want to play in a Heineken Cup final, then they have to win all three games at home and make sure of picking up something from the games on the road.”
Ulster have brought in two big names from the Southern Hemisphere to help with the challenge of regaining the Heineken Cup and McLaughlin is happy to have the two Sharks players at Ravenhill.
“Johann Muller is a great lineout specialist and will bring a lot of expertise into that area while Ruan Pienaar is going to add to our exciting back line,” said McLaughlin.
Biarritz will be favourites to win the group after falling in the Paris final to Toulouse by just two points in May.
They have a host of star names and have beaten Ulster on three of the four times they have meet in the tournament, with Ulster’s only win coming back in December 2002.
Ulster will not fear going to Bath after last season’s 28-10 win when they played some of their best rugby although the English side were reduced to 14 men.
The Italians look to have recruited strongly with Munster No8 Nick Williams and Saracens hooker Fabio Ongaro joining Bortolami but they will be an unknown quantity.
Meanwhile, Leinster and Munster are both claiming they have been allocated the ‘pool of death’.
Munster have been pitted in an extremely demanding group with Magners League winners Ospreys, leading English Premiership side London Irish and Jonny Wilkinson's ambitious French outfit Toulon.
Leinster's task in taking the first steps on the road to the final in Cardiff is no easier as the 2009 champions have been drawn in Pool 2 with French champions Clermont Auvergne as well as beaten Premiership finalists Saracens and Racing-Metro 92 of France.