Champions Cup: Simon Mason backs Ulster to get out of Euro pool of death
Ulster's 1999 hero Simon Mason knows all about overcoming the odds in Europe and is confident that Les Kiss's side can do so this season, despite a daunting Champions Cup draw.
With the competition starting this weekend, many commentators are predicting doom and gloom for the Pro12 sides preparing to face the free-spending powers of the English Premiership and French Top14 but Mason says there is nothing to fear.
The Liverpool-born fullback was front and centre when Harry Williams' side became the first Irish team to lift the trophy almost 17 years ago - kicking 18 points against Colomiers in the final - and believes that if Ulster can kick off their campaign with a win against Oyonnax on Saturday then anything is possible.
Saracens and Toulouse lie in wait - and will meet each other on Saturday evening in the other Pool 1 fixture - so a win against the lesser known of the French entrants will be viewed as imperative.
"At this stage, the first weekend, everyone is excited especially following so soon from the World Cup," said the man who now coaches both school and club rugby back in his native city.
"But the first game is going to be so important for Ulster.
"It's exactly the sort of game where, if you can start with a win, you give yourself half a chance straight out of the blocks.
"It's a big ask obviously but also a great opportunity. If you get a win, then it's a real confidence booster.
"With Toulouse and Saracens there's no margin for error there but win on Saturday and you go into that block with a lot of confidence.
"You never know what other teams are going to do when they play each other and with only a few games anything can happen.
"There's always a strange result in there somewhere; Ulster just have to play the game in front of them, as clichéd as it sounds."
A year ago the province started what was the inaugural edition of the rebranded Champions Cup with defeats to Leicester and Toulon and were unable to right the ship in a pool that also contained Scarlets.
While the triumphant 1999 team also began their path to glory without a win in their opening games - a draw with Edinburgh and a loss to Toulouse - Mason feels that momentum is the key to a successful campaign.
"In 1999 we started poorly with the bad loss away at Toulouse but then quickly started to pick up points and won the crucial games at home," he remembered.
"If you can get momentum, and the draw goes your way, then anything can happen.
"Ulster always have a great chance at home so the key really will be the away form.
"It's always a big test going to France but if you're going to get through to the quarter-finals then (Oyonnax) is a game that you have to win probably.
"The format was slightly different but we played Toulouse twice in Belfast and that was the making of us.
"They beat us quite comfortably at first and once we were able to get them at home the confidence just grew and grew.
"Back when we played there was a fear almost of going away from home but over the years Leinster and Munster have won in Toulouse, Ulster have had a couple of wins over in France in recent years, so there's nothing to be scared of anymore."
His brief spell with Stade Francais was ill-fated (pictured) but, with Ulster having beaten French sides four times en route to the trophy, Mason speaks with some authority on what it takes to overcome the Gallic outfits and points out that, while the financial gap is widening, the early years of the competition were hardly a level playing field themselves.
"When you look at the group, Toulouse and Saracens after last year against Toulon and Leicester, that's another group of death already almost.
"The money in their game is crazy. With it being World Cup year, the Irish team obviously sustained a good few injuries and that's impacted Ulster a bit with Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Iain Henderson.
"If it was a top French team, they'd have another international class player ready to come in and replace them.
"That's how the game has moved on over there; you just have these dream teams if you like.
"The squads that Toulon and Toulouse are putting together really would just take your breath away.
"Saying that, though, in 1999 we beat Stade Francais in the semis and they really were the Toloun of the time. They had superstars wherever you looked.
"The game has moved on obviously, the standard of player we're talking about in France with the imports and so on, but at the time they were still the hot property of the European game.
"We wouldn't have been backed to be able to get past them given the difference in resources but we did it.
"If we could, why not the Irish sides now?"
For Mason - who was in attendance at Kingspan Stadium when Saracens endured a hostile visit in the 2014 quarter-finals - no team, irrespective of their budget, will relish a trip to Belfast.
"As much as it is dramatically different from when I played, there's still that passion, the hunger and that atmosphere of playing in Belfast.
"If you go to France and get a win this weekend, with the home game to come against Saracens next week, all of a sudden you look at the group and think you have a real chance of doing something
"Having the support behind you that the boys will next week, that won't ever change and it's worth its weight in gold.
"It's one thing that can be a real leveller.
"There's some real quality in Irish rugby, maybe not the same budgets as elsewhere, but a week on Friday at the Kingspan you'll see what passion and fervour means and that's just as important as having million pound players."
Champions Cup: Stade Charles-Mathon, Sat, (1.00pm)