Glasgow Warriors, Ulster’s opponents at Ravenhill tonight (8pm), enter the penultimate match of their 2012-13 European sojourn knowing that even an Amlin Challenge Cup place is almost beyond them.
Beating Ulster would not guarantee inclusion in the lesser of the two European club rugby tournaments and the Scots’ coach, Gregor Townsend, is anticipating a tough test at the home of the Pool 4 leaders and RaboDirerct PRO12 table-toppers.
“Ulster are a very good team indeed,” the former Lions fly-half said.
“Their record at Ravenhill in this competition alone speaks for itself. Only one defeat in the last 13 Heineken Cup games at home indicates the size of the challenge ahead of us.
“But it can be done and it is the kind of challenge we coaches and players look forward to.”
The Warriors have only made it out of the pool stages of the Heineken Cup on one occasion and that was back in 1997-98 when they contested a quarter-final play-off spot against Leicester Tigers at the then-fortress-like Welford Road. It is not a visit on which the Scots look back with any sense of pride. Quite the opposite, in fact, for they were trounced 90-19, their heaviest ever defeat in any competition.
Leicester scored 14 tries, with Michael Horak helping himself to four. Small wonder Glasgow prefer not to dwell on an occasion which proved to be a huge embarrassment at the hands of their English hosts.
But the current Glasgow side is up to second spot in the PRO12, albeit 11 points behind the team they face tomorrow night. And they have been by far the most consistent professional rugby team in Scotland in recent years, reaching the semi-final play offs of last season’s RaboDirect Pro 12, having made it to the same stage of the Magners League two seasons earlier with those campaigns being masterminded by former head coach and 1990 Scotland Grand Slam centre Sean Lineen.
But while their Magners League and, more recently, PRO12 form has been impressive, their exploits in Europe have never quite reached the same level. That has been a source of on-going disappointment to Glasgow themselves and a surprise to many others elsewhere.
They fancied their chances this year in a Heineken Cup pool which, at the outset, they felt had no out-and-out favourites. And indeed in their opening Pool 4 fixture — away from home at the Franklin’s Gardens home of tier one Northampton Saints — third tier Glasgow flew out the blocks and were up 15-0 after only 28 minutes.
But they failed to score another point after that sensational opening and went on to lose the match 24-15 as Northampton hit their stride, managing to wrap up a try bonus point in the process.
Glasgow’s next three Heineken games were also close affairs. At home to Ulster on October 19 they were beaten by 11 points, the score having been 19-8 with Glasgow left to rue several missed shots at goal.
Against Castres at Scotstoun it was another case of so near and yet so far as they went down 9-6. And in the second of the pre-Christmas back-to-back games against the French at Stade Pierre Antoine they missed a last-minute penalty which cost them the match. It finished an agonisingly close 10-8 to the hosts.
Their frustration is understandable. Castres, unbeaten in 15 home matches until Toulouse scraped a two-point win against them on December 30, were there for the taking.
Goal-kicking has been a Glasgow problem ever since the departure of fans’ favourite Dan Parks for Cardiff in 2010. The fact that he is now rattling up points in the colours of Connacht does nothing to ease their sense of loss.
But Glasgow come to Belfast on the back of home and away victories over Edinburgh in the Christmas PRO12 derbies followed by last weekend’s 41-7 home thrashing of Treviso.
Townsend put those results and tomorrow night’s challenge in context by saying: “We performed very well in the Heineken Cup last time out against Castres and we’re coming off a good run of wins in the league so there’s a confidence about the squad at the moment that their hard work is paying off.
“This kind of game means we’re testing ourselves against one of the best sides around — and our ambition is to be counted amongst those sides.”
Already he is putting his stamp on a side whose most immediate aim is to deny Ulster the chance of going one better than last year.