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Ulster must buck trend to make quarters-finals of European Champions Cup

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster may be remaining bullish about their prospects of reaching the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup ahead of Saturday's meeting with Scarlets at the Kingspan Stadium, but history is certainly against them.

Neil Doak's men suffered reverses at the hands of Leicester Tigers and Toulon to begin their continental campaign and, in 20 years of European competition, no team has ever reached the last eight having lost their opening two pool games.

When Ulster fell to Toulon at the Kingspan Stadium in the early afternoon of October 25, they became the 92nd team to lose their first two games since what was then known as the Heineken Cup switched to four-team pools with six fixtures for each ahead of the 1998/99 season.

And while one may assume that Ulster are in a different predicament to most of those sides given the talent at their disposal, it should be noted that, while the likes of Calvisano and Treviso regularly fell in both their opening fixtures, teams such as Harlequins, Saracens, Wasps and, indeed Ulster themselves, have also been unable to emerge from such holes in the past.

It was Harlequins who came the closest to making history when, just last year, they finished within four points of the eighth seeds Saracens who eventually made it to the final after overcoming Ulster in a quarter-final tie remembered for Jared Payne's early sending off.

Given the glittering array of stars assembled by Bernard Laporte and Mourad Boudjellal in the south of France, Ulster will assume that there is next to no chance of them overhauling Toulon at the top of the group, but to even sneak into the last eight as one of the three best runners-up remains a gargantuan task.

If Ulster are to succeed where the 91 who have preceded them have failed, they will realistically need to win all four of their remaining games, two against Scarlets and one each against Leicester and Toulon. Since the competition brought in the now familiar try and losing bonus point system in 2003/04, the most common total amassed by the 8th placed seed has been 20.

For Ulster to achieve 20 points now would require 19 from their remaining four games, three bonus point wins and one other victory.

Llanelli may be a relatively poor side on the road, but they will be a different proposition in their Parc y Scarlets home.

While Ulster took three points from a 32-32 draw to open this Pro12 season, and Connacht crossed the whitewash four times in a domestic defeat there last March, no side has netted a five-point haul in West Wales since Clermont enjoyed a comfortable 31-13 win there just over a year ago.

Similarly, while Ulster have shown an ability to earn a try-bonus against the formidable Leicester Tigers in the recent past, few teams travel to Toulon's Stade Mayol with anything resembling expectation.

In this calendar year, the Top 14's Stade Francais and Grenoble are the only sides to have inflicted defeat upon the European Champions in the Cote d'Azur.

When you consider that important quintet Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry, all of whom would have been in the match-day 23, are unavailable for Saturday's game, no matter what way you look at it for Ulster, the numbers just don't add up.

Ireland international Donncha O'Callaghan, meanwhile, has been cited for allegedly kicking an Ulster player in the head.

Guinness PRO12 organisers said that 35-year-old Munster lock O'Callaghan had been reported following last Friday's league game at Thomond Park.

O'Callaghan will appear before an independent disciplinary committee later this week.

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