Ulster are up against it
Ulster's current status as third-tier Heineken European Rugby Cup contenders means they face an uphill battle if they are to emerge from the group stages and make it to the quarter-finals of the 2009-10 competition.
Bath and Stade Francais —ranked first and second respectively — are the fancied runners in Pool Four in which they are joined by the outsiders, Ulster and Edinburgh.
As with each of other five pools, the seeding format is designed in the hope of predetermining the outcome and avoiding any so-called ‘group of death’ situations in which big guns otherwise might come face to face, resulting in unwanted exits early on.
Upsets are improbable; deliberately so.
Stade Francais are no strangers to East Belfast, having been grouped with Ulster in 2001-02, 2003-04 and again last season when they won 26-10 in Belfast and 24-19 at the Stade Jean Bouin.
Of course, the French aristocrats continue to occupy a special place in the collective memory of the Ravenhill faithful, for no-one who was there on the famous January afternoon in 1999 when Ulster beat Stade 33-27 in the penultimate stage of the march to Lansdowne Road where the European Cup was won, has ever forgotten that historic occasion or the image of David Humphreys haring full tilt towards the Aquinas End for a remarkable try.
Bath were here less than a year ago, too, in their case for a friendly. That was the first match of the 2008-09 season and they won by a 15-7 margin.
This time it will be for real rather an an early-season warm-up and with the West Country giants — fourth in last term’s Guinness Premiership — installed as Pool Four favourites, the famous Memorial Stadium-based club will offer formidable opposition.
And if Richard Hill — a member of Bath’s Hall of Fame — gets the job as Ulster’s coach, those two tete-a-tetes would be very special occasions for him, in particular the away match against the club he represented on 248 occasions and captained for two seasons.
Edinburgh complete the group and although they are ranked fourth of the quartet, they will be no pushover. Last season, when they were pitted against Ulster in the Magners League, the Scots registered a 21-15 Murrayfield victory en route to runners-up spot.
So, trips to Paris, Edinburgh and Bath between October 9 and January 24. Stade de France will be the venue for the final, though it is unlikely that Ulster will be returning to the French capital in the role of participants on May 22, 2010.
Holders, Leinster, are bracketed with London Irish, Scarlets and Brive. Munster — who were beaten by Leinster in last season’s Croke Park semi-final epic — face French and Italian opposition in the shape of Perpignan and Trevisco respectively, with Northampton completing that line-up.
The six groupings are: Pool One: Munster, Perpignan, Northampton, Treviso
Pool Two: Biarritz, Gloucester, Dragons, Glasgow
Pool Three: Leicester, Ospreys, Clermont, Viadana
Pool Four: Bath, Stade Francais, Ulster, Edinburgh
Pool Five: Toulouse, Cardiff Blues, Sale, Harlequins
Pool Six: Leinster, London Irish, Scarlets, Brive.
The weekends of the group matches (dates to be finalised) are October 9-11,October 16-18, December 11-13, December 18-20, January 15-17, January 22-24. Quarter-finals: April 9-11; semi-finals: May 1-2; final (Stade de France): May 22.
Champions going into Exile
Familiarfaces will abound for Shane Horgan and Leinster after the reigning Heineken Cup champions were drawn in Pool Six alongside London Irish, Llanelli and Brive in next season’s competition.
Former Leinster player Bob Casey will most likely captain the Exiles when the sides meet with the away leg to be played in a packed Madejski stadium while former Munster hooker Frankie Sheahan will be plying his trade in the south of France with the Top 14 side this season.
“We’ve got a Welsh team, an English team and a French team so it’s not easy,” Horgan said.
“But then the Heineken Cup is never easy. It’s very difficult getting out of the group. We had a bit of trouble this year, getting out of it, but that’s the real key. You’ve got to roll with the punches and you try and get out and then you see where you are. But it’s certainly going to be difficult.”
“There’s going to be a huge crowd for the London Irish game — an Irish province against London Irish. There’s always something special there. I think we’re playing them in pre-season as well so we’ll get a bit familiar with them.
“As for Brive, if nothing else we’ll have a good time down there with Frankie!” he laughed.
“That will be great, he’ll show us around Brive. But he’ll bring something down there. I can see Frankie working in Brive like Trevor (Brennan) worked in Toulouse. They’re huge personalities.
“But they’re very passionate about their home record.”
Munster’s route fraught with danger
Magners League champions Munster will clash with French champions Perpignan in Pool One, which also features a return to Heineken Cup rugby for Northampton.
Having spent a year out of the Premiership, the Saints have not been in the competition for the past two seasons, but they, like Brive, are former champions looking to prove themselves again at the highest level.
"This happens to be our 10th anniversary of winning the Heineken Cup, back in 2000," said Northampton chief executive Allan Robson.
"Playing Munster is a bit more exciting compared to some of the teams we played in the European Challenge Cup last season!"
Last year's beaten finalists Leicester have again been drawn to face the Ospreys, with Top 14 runners-up Clermont-Auvergne and Italian side Viadana completing Pool Three.