Ulster, buoyed up by Thursday night’s excellent victory over Bayonne in France, are gearing up for an even tougher test this weekend.
For while their 20-15 Parc des Jean Dauger triumph at the expense of the Top 14 side was a massive pre-season shot-in-the-arm, no-one in the Ulster camp is under any illusions as to what they can expect at Ravenhill on Saturday (2pm).
Leicester Tigers, who have signed a host of players, are the guests and the famous East Midlands club’s players and staff will not need to be reminded of what happened when last they lined out at the east Belfast citadel.
Friday, January 13, 2012 is emblazoned on Ulster supporters’ hearts for that was the date on which their side subjected the Tigers to a 41-7 Heineken Cup mauling, the English Aviva Premiership giants’ worst-ever defeat in European club rugby’s premier tournament.
What added massive insult to considerable injury was the fact that it was Leicester’s second-such humiliation, for prior to that beating their worst Heineken Cup defeat had been on January 11, 2004 when Ulster trounced them 33-0 at Ravenhill.
In view of Leicester’s standing — the most successful English club and twice European champions — Ulster’s record against them at Ravenhill is quite remarkable.
In the wake of last season’s hiding, which effectively meant the end of the Tigers’ hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals, their Director of Rugby, Richard Cockerill, was gracious in defeat.
“Ulster are a good side and we didn’t cope with it. We couldn’t cope with their intensity,” said Cockerill, whose charges beat Jersey 34-21 in a pre-season friendly in the Channel Isles on Saturday.
Ulster’s result in the south of France was more impressive, however, so as well as whetting appetites ahead of their RaboDirect PRO12 curtain-raiser against Glasgow Warriors on August 31, the success has raised supporters’ expectations in that tournament.
Last season, Ulster lost 10 of their 22 PRO12 games and, as a result, finished sixth, nine points shy of a top four play-off place.
New coach Mark Anscombe is well aware of the fact that his employers do not want any repetition of what they saw as under-achievement on that front.
Ulster’s marketing drive appears to working. Already more than 4,000 season tickets have been sold.
But neither coach Anscombe nor his players will be getting too carried away by the hype. It is a warm-up friendly, after all.
Prior to last week’s French training camp, Jared Payne pointed out: “All of the work we’re doing is about getting ourselves in shape for the start of the Rabo. The reason we have pre-season friendlies is to make sure we’re right for the matches with points at stake.”