Belfast Telegraph

Another giant European step for Ulster

Line-up: (from left) Sale Sharks’ Jono Ross, Gloucester’s Ben Morgan, Northampton Saints’ Alex Waller, Munster’s Rory Scannell, Ospreys’ Dan Lydiate, Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton, Harlequins’ Chris Robshaw, Connacht’s Jarrad Butler, Glasgow Warriors’ Callum Gibbins, Benetton’s Alberto Sgarbi, Exeter Chiefs’ Sam Skinner, Ulster’s Iain Henderson and Bath’s Charlie Ewels at the Champions Cup launch at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff
Line-up: (from left) Sale Sharks’ Jono Ross, Gloucester’s Ben Morgan, Northampton Saints’ Alex Waller, Munster’s Rory Scannell, Ospreys’ Dan Lydiate, Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton, Harlequins’ Chris Robshaw, Connacht’s Jarrad Butler, Glasgow Warriors’ Callum Gibbins, Benetton’s Alberto Sgarbi, Exeter Chiefs’ Sam Skinner, Ulster’s Iain Henderson and Bath’s Charlie Ewels at the Champions Cup launch at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff
Mark McCall
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Sometime in the middle of what will have felt the longest pre-season of their careers, Ulster's players will surely have become aware of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and man's first steps on the moon.

The waves of nostalgia regarding the awe and wonder caused by Apollo 11 filled many a page of a newspaper and slot in a TV schedule over the summer as people reflected on one of history's great "where were you when?" moments.

Less discussed is what happened next. By the time of Apollo 12 and the next manned mission to space, already the American public had begun to question if this NASA business was really the best way to spend their tax dollars.

It's remarkable how quickly the remarkable becomes the routine, something that Ulster may find in the coming weeks and months.

Five years on from their last European quarter-final, a regrouping and rebuilding province were much praised for their return to knock-out rugby last spring, a feat that in year one of Dan McFarland's tenure always felt that it was arriving quicker than expected.

Now, like those astronauts, their achievement that once seemed to be against insurmountable odds becomes something to be expected.

While last season's memorable last eight meeting with Leinster came despite a daunting pool that contained two of the previous season's semi-finalists in Racing 92 and Scarlets, as well as two-time European champions Leicester Tigers, matters are no more straightforward this time around.

In French giants Clermont they will face one of the most frequently fruitless away trips in European rugby when travelling to the Stade Marcel Michelin in January. Bath, who they meet at The Rec tomorrow to kick things off, and Harlequins, who await in the traditional December back-to-backs, are two of the English sides often accused of failing to make their mark on this competition, but when you consider that the likes of Sam Underhill, Francois Louw, Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga, Kyle Sinckler, Joe Marler and Joe Marchant are among their numbers, you get some idea of the task at hand.

In the streamlined competition of 20 teams, four wins and a host of bonus points is a minimum requirement for a quarter-final place, while recent history shows that more likely it is five wins from six that will be needed.

Ulster can take heart from last season's performances while, even with the post-World Cup retirement of Rory Best, McFarland's team is still a formidable one when the spine of the side is present and correct.

Still, just a repeat of last season's feat of making the last eight should be considered an achievement in itself. To build upon 2018/19 and go one step further would be considered among the province's best efforts in the 25 years of continental competition.

At the sharp end of the competition, all eyes will be on another Ulsterman as Mark McCall looks to somehow stop last week's salary cap scandal from infiltrating into his carefully cultivated bubble.

Last season's champions, for now at least facing the prospect of a relegation battle in the Premiership thanks to a 35-point deduction, have already said all the right things as they go about furthering the required "us-against-the-world" ethos required for such a situation, but this is a story that is only set to run and run.

The surprising level of on-the-record opprobrium from their fellow English clubs at last week's European launch event in Cardiff - which Saracens, it should be noted, skipped by the way - was an insight into the depth of feeling stirred in others by what now seems to be the west London outfit's tainted success.

There's no salary cap in Europe of course, but there remain huge question marks over just what happens to the squad so richly assembled in Barnet moving forward and how the likes of Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers and Maro Itoje, all implicated to some degree, are affected by both the storm brewing at home and, of course, their considerable exertions in taking England to the brink of immortality before falling just short.

The early signs have been positive for the fez-wearing brethren.

There was certainly a circle-the-wagons element to their win over Gloucester in Kingsholm last weekend.

In a pool that also contains Racing 92 and Munster, as well as Ospreys, little good it seems can come from McCall's previous musing that his side may have to focus on domestic matters and send out shadow sides in Europe and, in truth, it would be little surprise to see them squeeze out a result in Paris this weekend before going on their customarily deep run into the knock-out stages.

Before we've really seen any of these teams take the field in a fashion close to locked and loaded, they remain the favourites to win what would be their fourth title, while Leinster, Clermont and Toulouse will all have eyes on taking their own place in the Stade de Marseille come the end of May.

The World Cup may still seem to be barely in the rear-view mirror but, as Europe's 20 best teams slug it out this weekend, the wheel just keeps on turning.

Pool one

BENETTON RUGBY

Head coach: Kieran Crowley

Captain: Dean Budd

Key man: Braam Steyn

Last time: Did not qualify

Best: Pool stages

Verdict: Having qualified on merit, Benetton were hardly rewarded by the draw and have arguably the toughest start in European rugby with a trip to face Leinster in the RDS. They’ve gotten over that particular hoodoo in recent PRO14 meetings but it’s hard to see much momentum coming their way in the early going.

LYON

Head coach: Pierre Mignoni

Captain: Julien Puricelli

Key man: Charlie Ngatai

Last time: Pool stages

Best: Pool stages

Verdict: Last season was a maiden run at Europe’s top tier and their lack of experience showed to the tune of six defeats in six games. Currently they sit top of the table in the Top 14 and, while they were going well domestically at this time last year too, certainly have the squad to make an impact if they choose to devote their energies to Europe.

LEINSTER

Head coach: Leo Cullen

Captain: Johnny Sexton

Key man: James Ryan

Last time: Beaten finalists

Best: Winners (2009, 2011, 2012, 2018)

Verdict: Suffered a bit of a World Cup hangover in Europe four years ago but will expect to bank a home quarter-final from this pool. With Saracens facing difficulties, will see themselves as in with a real chance of getting their hands on the trophy they lost to Mark McCall’s men last May.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS

Head coach: Chris Boyd

Captain: Teimana Harrison

Key man: Dan Biggar

Last time: Did not qualify

Best: Winners (2000)

Verdict: Back where they’ll believe they belong after a season in the less glamorous surroundings of the Challenge Cup last time around. They’ve been going well in the early stages of the Premiership too before slipping up against Ulster’s round one opponents Bath at the weekend. May well come second behind Leinster but will need to take something from the back-to-backs.

Pool two

EXETER CHIEFS

Head coach: Rob Baxter

Captain: Jack Yeandle

Key man: Jack Nowell

Last time: Pool stages

Best: Quarter-finals

Verdict: Given their consistent excellence on the domestic stage, it feels as if Exeter’s return in the Champions Cup in recent seasons is a relative disappointment. Have gotten the rough end of the deal in a few draws, will look to put things right this year having added Scottish star Stuart Hogg to what was already an obviously strong core.

LA ROCHELLE

Head coach: Ronan O’Gara

Captain: Romain Sazy

Key man: Victor Vito

Last time: Did not qualify

Best: Quarter-finals

Verdict: When they last played in this competition, were the most impressive team in the whole tournament before form dropped off after Christmas. Are a side that will be of plenty of interest to Irish fans with former Ulster coach Jono Gibbes as DoR and Ronan O’Gara the head coach. Fairly average season so far in France.

GLASGOW WARRIORS

Head coach: Dave Rennie

Captain: Callum Gibbins

Key man: Adam Hastings

Last time: Quarter-final

Best: Quarter-final

Verdict: Have the excuse of coming up against a rampant Saracens team at the quarter-final stage last season but, like their pool-mates Exeter, are a side who have consistently failed to bring their league form into continental competition. Given the uncertainty around Dave Rennie’s future and the loss of Hogg last season, don’t seem primed to change that here.

SALE SHARKS

Head coach: Steve Diamond

Captain: Jono Ross

Key man: Faf de Klerk

Last time: Did not qualify

Best: Quarter-finals

Verdict: Not a team who’ve made much impact in Europe thus far, reaching the quarter-finals in 2006 before losing to Biarritz, but could surprise a few this time around. Had a good run in the Challenge Cup a year ago and, if World Cup stars like Faf de Klerk and Tom Curry come back and hit the ground running, will compete.

Pool three

CLERMONT AUVERGNE

Head coach: Franck Azéma

Captain: Morgan Parra

Key man: Damian Penaud

Last time: Quarter-finals

Best: Beaten finalists  (2013, 2015, 2017)

Verdict: The Challenge Cup winners are back at Europe’s top table and chasing the trophy that has proven to be so elusive for them despite their star-studded squads year after year. Still more than formidable at home, are one of perhaps four favourites and should have the other three fighting for second place in this pool.

HARLEQUINS

Head coach: Paul Gustard

Captain: Chris Robshaw

Key man: Kyle Sinckler

Last time: Did not qualify

Best: Quarter-finals

Verdict: A much improved outfit from the side Ulster beat twice in this competition’s back to backs two years ago with a smattering of world class talent covering for a lack of depth compared to some of their English rivals. However, they would still be considered something of an outside bet to make a fourth quarter-final.

BATH

Head coach: Stuart Hooper

Captain: Charlie Ewels

Key man: Sam Underhill

Last time: Pool stages

Best: Winners (1998)

Verdict: Much will depend on what shape their World Cup contingent return in for club action. Francois Louw will be back having won a World Cup, while Sam Underhill was one of the stars of a tournament Taulupe Faletau missed through injury. That’s one of the best back-rows in the competition but how many games will they play?

ULSTER

Head coach: Dan McFarland

Captain: Iain Henderson

Key man: Marcell Coetzee

Last time: Quarter-finals

Best: Winners (1999)

Verdict: Made their return to the knock-outs after a five-year absence last season and really should have beaten Leinster in a nip and tuck quarter-final. That was perhaps ahead of the curve and will likely need another five from six showing to repeat the feat this time around.

Pool four

MUNSTER

Head coach: Johann van Graan

Captain: Peter O’Mahony

Key man: Joey Carbery

Last time: Semi-finals

Best: Winners (2006, 2008)

Verdict: Certainly seemed to have been handed no favours when the draw was made but since then both Racing and Saracens have had their own struggles. With reinforcements on the way this summer, perhaps this could prove to be a season too soon to break through their semi-final duck.

RACING 92

Head coaches: Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers

Captain: Henry Chavancy

Key man: Teddy Thomas

Last time: Quarter-final

Best: Beaten finalist

Verdict: The Paris giants have had a shocking start to the season back home with just three wins from nine, but Europe has always been seen as the holy grail for their billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti so focus won’t shift away. One of their star men Leone Nakawara was suspended after a delayed return from the World Cup and they will always pose a threat.

OSPREYS

Head coach: Allen Clarke

Captain: Justin Tipuric

Key man: Alun Wyn Jones

Last time: Did not qualify

Best: Quarter-finals

Verdict: Tough times at the Liberty Stadium where resources are stretched for Ulsterman Allen Clarke. Five defeats in six games to start the PRO14 season tells its own tale but at least the return of a sizeable Welsh contingent after their exploits for Warren Gatland at the World Cup in Japan can provide a timely boost.

SARACENS

Head coach: Mark McCall

Captain: Brad Barritt

Key man: Owen Farrell

Last time: Champions

Best: Winners (2016, 2017, 2019)

Verdict: The most talked about rugby scandal in a decade has rocked the European champions but it remains hard to see if Ulster native Mark McCall’s men punt Europe in an effort to avoid relegation after that mammoth points deduction. Within or outside England’s salary cap, still possess the best squad in Europe.

Pool five

CONNACHT

Head coach: Andy Friend

Captain: Jarrad Butler

Key man: Bundee Aki

Last time: Did not qualify

Best: Pool stages

Verdict: Have previous when it comes to overturning Toulouse in Europe and had made a strong start to the season before veering substantially off course against Leinster last weekend. Have greater depth than ever before despite a bit of a second-row crisis but, again, this is a draw to remind you of the importance of higher seeding.

MONTPELLIER

Head coach: Xavier Garbajosa

Captain: Fulgence Ouedraogo

Key man: Handre Pollard

Last time: Pool stages

Best: Pool stages

Verdict: Despite having such a heavy South African presence in their squad in recent years, they have displayed some very French traits in European competition where more often than not an expensively assembled squad has flattered to deceive. Already their struggles in the Top 14 seem sure to take priority.

GLOUCESTER

Head coach: Johan Ackermann

Captain: Ed Slater

Key man: Danny Cipriani

Last time: Pool stages

Best: Semi-finals

Verdict: Often inconsistent, they will take heart from having had the measure of Connacht in recent meetings. Always a tough proposition at their intimidating Kingsholm home patch, if they can beat Toulouse in tonight’s opener and pick up a few of those hard to come by road results, could find themselves pushing for the quarters.

TOULOUSE

Head coach: Ugo Mola

Captain: Julien Marchand

Key man:  Cheslin Kolbe

Last time: Semi-finals

Best: Champions (1996, 2003, 2005, 2010)

Verdict: After last season’s somewhat out of the blue revival, where an exciting spine of young French talent carried them to the last four, they will be hopeful of going at least one better here and reaching the final on home soil.  With a glittering array of stars in attack, including Springbok World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe, Toulouse are a real favourite.

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