Belfast Telegraph

All you need to know about this season's Champions Cup and why past glory may be key for Ulster

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Tiger feat: a flashback to 2004 and Ulster’s sensational defeat of Leicester Tigers
Tiger feat: a flashback to 2004 and Ulster’s sensational defeat of Leicester Tigers
The Ruan Pienaar-inspired victory in Welford Road
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

With the opening weekend of the Champions Cup bringing a fixture with Leicester, there are few visitors that could prompt such waves of nostalgia for Ulster supporters.

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They have only played Toulouse and Stade Francais with more frequency in this competition and, while the French pair are cemented in the hearts of romantics given their association with the magical run to the 1999 title, the Tigers themselves feature heavily in Ulster lore.

The Ruan Pienaar-inspired victory in Welford Road ensuring a six-from-six pool in 2013/14 is arguably the finest single achievement but, when it comes to this weekend, perhaps a more apt glance back in the history books would be towards the 2004 clash at Ravenhill.

"They came as multiple English Premiership and European champions but with David Humphreys orchestrating we comprehensively put them to the sword," remembered former flanker Neil Best in an entertaining look back at the game earlier this week.

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Leicester had surprisingly left England's newly minted World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson on the bench, but still boasted the likes of Austin Healey, Dorian West and Graham Rowntree in their number.

Their hosts were then in the middle of an 11-year run without a quarter-final berth but ran out 33-0 winners.

Captain Andy Ward was among the scorers for the side that led 28-0 at half-time in a game that caused something of a furore in certain quarters for being held on a Sunday.

While the win took Ulster temporarily top of their pool, a stark turnaround in the next week's return fixture dashed any hopes of a knock-out berth.

It was par for the course then, but so too was winning while hosting, no matter who the visitor.

The province's home winning streak ultimately reached 13 games in Europe, eventually ended by Biarritz in 2006.

Despite the numerous failures to progress beyond the groups, the 'Ravenhill Roar' ensured Belfast was never a welcome draw for the opposition.

When they eventually became contenders once again, Ulster's home form provided a ready made platform to launch into the quarter-finals.

As Dan McFarland alluded to earlier this week, few would look at the side's recent form and expect them to top the pool, not with two of last season's semi-finalists for company in addition to tomorrow's visitors.

Maintaining their home form, however, is a more than reasonable target for this campaign.

The defeat to Bordeaux-Begles in 2017 was arguably their worst in BT6 for some years but there was a return to winning ways last season.

Wasps were beaten here, so too La Rochelle, who were then being touted as one of Europe's best sides due to their sumptuous rugby, while a poor Harlequins side were duly thumped on a cold Friday in December.

In such a short competition, anything is possible with only one surprise win away from the friendly confines, but three home victories should be the baseline.

Ulster's fellow Pool Four side Racing 92 will, after two recent final defeats and the additions of Simon Zebo and Finn Russell, rightly see themselves among the favourites for this season's competition. So too will the English pair of Exeter and Saracens.

A tough pool works against them but, after reaching a semi-final a year ago, and having made a number of astute signings over the summer, Munster will likely be one of the outside bets dreaming of a date in Newcastle, so too an injury-hit Montpellier where old friend Ruan Pienaar may well be in his swansong season.

After their dominant display a season ago, however, it remains a case of backing either Leinster or the field.

The four-time champions earned the fourth star on their jersey thanks to victory over Racing in Bilbao five months ago and are now aiming to establish a new mark for titles won, breaking a tie with Toulouse.

As is so often the case though, success draws admiring glances from elsewhere and Leinster's squad has lost some of its depth. Jordi Murphy is with Ulster, Joey Carbery is wearing Munster's ten jersey and long-time talisman Isa Nacewa has retired.

Nobody looking at the quality of the side they're putting out tonight against Wasps in the curtain raiser will have much sympathy, but a triumph this season would be an even greater achievement than last time around.

For supporters, there is a sense of out with the new and in with the old. Reprising memories of the tournaments heyday, Heineken is back in the role of title sponsor while a sole broadcaster, and the resulting change to kick-off times, certainly making things feel less sporadic.

Three days, 20 top teams, 10 games.

The weekend awaits.

Pool One


Coach: Todd Blackadder

Captain: Matt Garvey

Key man: Jamie Roberts

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: The 1998 champions have made just one quarter-final in the last nine years and it’ll be a big ask to get back this time around. Have won just twice domestically in the early going — dangerous backs who are now under the stewardship of former Leinster coach Girvan Dempsey but likely not enough up front to really challenge.

Prediction: 3rd


Coach: Leo Cullen

Captain: Jonathan Sexton

Key man: Jonathan Sexton

Last season: Champions

Verdict: Can anyone stop them this time around? The province are going for what would be a record breaking fifth title but aren’t quite as strong as they were a year ago. Isa Nacewa, Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy are all gone, with Joe Tomane in and still settling, leaving greater need to stay injury free.

Prediction: Pool winners


Coach: Ugo Mola

Captain: Julien Marchand

Key man: Sebastien Bezy

Last season: Challenge Cup

Verdict: The four time winners are back in the big time after a year spent in the wilderness of the Challenge Cup. Still not back to their fearsome best but have seen a recent improvement at home. Probably lack the depth of their pool opposition.

Prediction: 4th


Coach: Dai Young

Captain: Joe Launchbury

Key man: Lima Sopoaga

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: Don’t seem to be on the same level as Saracens and Exeter but are certainly the best of the rest in England. The key for them will be how quickly former All Black Lima Sopoaga fills the void left by Danny Cipriani’s move to Gloucester. Likely finish behind Leinster.

Prediction: Best runner-up

Pool 2


Coach: Christophe Urios

Captain: Rodrigo Capo Ortega

Key man: Rory Kockott

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: The French champions will have harboured some optimism that this could have finally been the year when they made some impact in Europe but injuries have bitten hard. Fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta is a huge loss while the familiar face of French full-back Scott Spedding, a new addition this summer, is out too.

Prediction: 4th

Exeter Chiefs

Coach: Rob Baxter

Captain: Jack Yeandle

Key man: Gareth Steenson

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: Once again are battling Saracens at the top of the Premiership and will expect to fare better in Europe this time around having run into Leinster early last season. Henry Slade is in flying form in the midfield and back-row Matt Kvesic is back to his best. Munster games look likely to be key, starting tomorrow.

Prediction: Pool winners


Coach: Johan Ackermann

Captain: Will Heinz

Key man: Danny Cipriani

Last season: Did not qualify

Verdict: David Humphreys’ outfit are back in the top tier having again reached the Challenge Cup final last season. Are currently sat in a play-off spot domestically and come in having beaten Wasps away. New signing Cipriani has been a human highlight reel so far.

Prediction: 3rd


Coach: Johan van Graan

Captain: Peter O’Mahony

Key man: Keith Earls (right)

Last season: Semi-finalists

Verdict: Such a memorable run last time around, highlighted by Andrew Conway’s unforgettable quarter-final try. Had a very strange season to date with three away defeats and three wholly facile home wins but look stronger on paper than a year ago once Conor Murray returns from injury.

Prediction: Runners-up/quarter-finals

Pool Three

Cardiff Blues

Coach: John Mulvihill

Captain: Ellis Jenkins

Key man: Gareth Anscombe

Last season: Did not qualify

Verdict: Have developed a taste for European rugby once again having won last season’s Challenge Cup. Bouncing back since the shock loss to Zebre, the side come into Europe off the back of three straight wins, including an impressive win over Munster but arguably are in the deepest pool, making qualification tough.

Prediction: 4th

Glasgow Warriors

Coach: Dave Rennie

Captain: Callum Gibbons

Key man: Tommy Seymour

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: Europe left a sour taste last year in what ultimately ended up as a disappointing campaign. They were sweeping all opposition aside in the early going of 2017/18’s PRO14 but struggled mightily once in the Champions Cup. Will look to be better this time around but these teams could all take points from each other.

Prediction: 3rd


Coach: Pierre Mignoni

Captain: Julien Puricelli

Key man: Liam Gill

Last season: Did not qualify

Verdict: The only first-timers in this season’s competition, and have potential to be this season’s La Rochelle. Have already beaten the likes of Racing and Montpellier domestically this year and have real quality in the likes of Liam Gill and Charlie Ngatai.

Prediction: 2nd


Coach: Mark McCall

Captain: Brad Barritt

Key man: Owen Farrell

Last season: Quarter-finals

Verdict: Returned to their perch in England last May but Europe was saw them comfortably defeated by Leinster in the quarter-finals. With post-Lions fatigue not a factor this season for their key men, Mark McCall’s men are likely Leinster and Racing’s biggest challengers.

Prediction: Pool winners

Pool Four

Leicester Tigers

Coach: Geordan Murphy

Captain: Tom Youngs

Key man: George Ford

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: Enduring a bizarre season having sacked Matt O’Connor after just one game but have been showing signs of life of late under former Ireland full-back Geordan Murphy. Still plenty of quality when looking down the team-sheet but have real defensive issues and a really testing pool.

Prediction: 4th

Racing 92

Coach: Laurent Labit

Captain: Dimitri Szarzewski

Key man: Finn Russell

Last season: Beaten finalists

Verdict: Have now lost two finals after last season’s narrow defeat to Leinster but have re-tooled in an effort to finally go one step further this time around. Simon Zebo and Russell have both hit the ground running but they have already lost twice at their La Defense Arena home this year.

Prediction: Pool winners


Coach: Wayne Pivac

Captain: Ken Owens

Key man: Hadleigh Parkes

Last season: semi-finals

Verdict: Just as in the PRO14, their European run ended once they ran into Leinster. In Pivac’s last season with the region, will be hoping to make a big impression in the competition. Tadhg Beirne and John Barclay have been big losses but Rhys Patchell is in good form.

Prediction: Best-runners up.


Coach: Dan McFarland

Captain: Rory Best

Key man: Iain Henderson

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: Qualifying in the manner they did — via a play-off — was always likely to leave the province facing an uphill battle to book a first quarter-final since 2014. So it has proved with two of last season’s semi-finalists and an improving Tigers in the pool. Must win their home games.

Prediction: 3rd

Pool 5


Coach: Richard Cockerill

Captain: Stuart McInally

Key man: Blair Kinghorn

Last season: Did not qualify

Verdict: In year two of his Edinburgh rebuild, Richard Cockerill has the side here on merit and it’s not outside the realms of possibility that they could make an impact here. Have been a mixed bag domestically but are starting to build after slow start. It’ll be tough but, as always, home form will be crucial.

Prediction: 2nd


Coach: Vern Cotter

Captain: Louis Picamoles

Key man: Ruan Pienaar

Last season: Pool stage exit

Verdict: One of the biggest disappointments in last season’s competition as they failed to impress in what was termed the pool of death. Have real issues at ten thanks to injuries and may even have to deploy former Ulster hero Ruan Pienaar in the position but will still expect to come out tops.

Prediction: Pool winners.

Newcastle Falcons

Coach: Dean Richards

Captain: Will Welch

Key man: Sinoti Sinoti

Last season: Did not qualify

Verdict: Last season’s surprise package in the Premiership played some delightful rugby on their way to an impressive finish. Have struggled since but with the final in their own city, a deep run would be a fairytale. Will have a feeling there is half a chance here.

Prediction: 4th


Coach: Patrice Collazo

Captain: Mathieu Bastareaud

Key man: Raphael Lakafia

Last season: Did not qualify

Verdict: The reason this pool seems so open is the poor form of Toulon to start this season. Patrice Collazo, recruited from La Rochelle, has had a horrible run of results in the hotseat, not helped by the losses of Chris Ashton and Ma’a Nonu.

Prediction: 3rd

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