Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Ulster Rugby face massive challenge in new Euro cup

Europe's finest: Toulon, one of Ulster's future group rivals, lift the 2014 Heineken Cup
Europe's finest: Toulon, one of Ulster's future group rivals, lift the 2014 Heineken Cup

It is a cliché to talk in terms of a 'group of death' but that was the reaction of many Ulster supporters following the draw for the new-look European Rugby Champions Cup.

Ulster have been pitted against mighty Toulon, old European adversaries Leicester Tigers and fellow-PRO12 side, Scarlets.

Having won the Heineken Cup in each of the past two seasons, Toulon are aiming for the first ever hat-trick in the competition's history.

Jonny Wilkinson, who captained the French giants in each of the past two campaigns, may have hung up his boots but he is returning to Stade Félix Mayol in a coaching capacity.

And such is the strength and depth of their expensively assembled squad that they are probably the best-equipped club in the northern hemisphere to withstand that loss.

Leicester are no strangers and, encouragingly, Ulster's record against them is impressive. This will be the fourth time they have squared up in Europe and Ulster have won four of their previous six against these opponents.

That quartet of victories includes the Tigers' two worst-ever defeats in the competition – 33-0 in Belfast (2003-04) and 41-7 (2012-13).

And last year, of course, Ulster managed a home and away double over the Richard Cockerill-coached Aviva Premiership side, winning the October 11 tie at Ravenhill 22-16 and then squeezing home 22-19 in the Welford Road return on January 18 – the first time Leicester had lost a Heineken Cup home game since Munster beat them in the opening pool-stage match of 2007-08.

Scarlets and Ulster know one another inside out as a result of their regular meetings on the domestic front.

Ulster's chief executive, Shane Logan, described the draw as 'tough, achievable and very exciting'. "We knew it was going to be tough; with now only 20 teams in the competition it makes it harder," he said.

"I don't think we have anything to fear – I'm not underestimating the task but we're getting better at winning away in big games; last year we won at Leicester and Montpellier."

As for the prospect of welcoming the holders to Kingspan Stadium, his take on Toulon's visit was: "It's a magnificent fixture – it's mouth watering. We believe we have, perhaps, Europe's best stadium and we want to have Europe's best teams playing at it.

"That's the beauty of this competition and that's the beauty of what we're trying to create. Toulon have a team that is star-studded with some of the world's best players and they'll bring a big crowd over. And I know that our crowd will more than rival them.

"It's great for Ulster Rugby and it will be a pleasure to welcome them to Kingspan Stadium."

As for the other two in Pool 3, Logan said: "We're well used to playing Leicester. And interestingly, when we've had them in our pool, we've gone through to the quarter-finals.

"I think we are the only team in Europe to have gone through to the last eight in each of the last four years. It will be tough, enjoyable, but we'll do our best to make it five years in a row.

"You can't underestimate Scarlets. They beat us well away from home last season (in the PRO12) although we beat them well in Belfast. It's always tough – they play attractive rugby and have a fine coach in Simon Easterby."

His overall assessment was: "We've lost some magnificent servants, but several were towards the end of their careers. So what we've done is bring in younger, but experienced players, to build for the future.

"We also have a very strong crop of local players. We had the largest contingent of any province starting for Ireland on Saturday and we are investing heavily in our succession.

"We also have players like Stuart Olding, who missed all of last season through injury. We have depth and world-class quality in most positions."

Rory Best took to Twitter to have his say. He tweeted: "Tough draw, but exciting times ahead, the Kingspan Stadium will be rocking for the three home games!!"

Ulster's former director of rugby David Humphreys will take on the Challenge Cup next season, his new club Gloucester having failed to qualify for the main event.

The south-westerners will face Brive, Zebre and Oyonnax.

Leinster – winners in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – have drawn Castres Olympique, Harlequins and London Wasps, while Munster – champions in 2006 and 2008 – will face Mark McCall's Saracens who were runners-up last season, ASM Clermont Auvergne and Sale Sharks.

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