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European champions' cup: Another trip home for McCall


Familiar foes: Sarcens will be back at Kingspan in the Champions Cup

Familiar foes: Sarcens will be back at Kingspan in the Champions Cup

Brian Little

Familiar foes: Sarcens will be back at Kingspan in the Champions Cup

Ulster will be hoping the third time's a charm after they were yet again paired with Saracens in yesterday's Champions Cup pool draw.

The Premiership side ended Ulster's ambitions at the quarter-final stage of the final two editions of the Heineken Cup and will enter this year's competition as the champions of England.

Also paired with Ulster in Pool 1 are four-times European champions Toulouse and newcomers Onnoyax.

Speaking after the draw, Ulster team manager Bryn Cunningham was bullish about his side's chances of making it back to the knock-out rounds after last season's disappointing pool stage exit.

"I'm very confident," declared the 1999 Heineken Cup winner.

"It's a tough group but every side in there will fancy their chances and know that they have it in them to top that group.

"You look at some of the other pools, with the likes of Bordeaux and Racing some of the tier 3 and tier 4 teams that we've avoided, are going to be very good sides.

"It's a tough group but one that we're definitely capable of getting out of."

The eye was immediately drawn to the pairing with Saracens. Few are able to forget Ulster's 2014 defeat at the Kingspan Stadium when Jared Payne was shown an early red card and Cunningham was excited to once again be paired with the side coached by his former Ulster captain Mark McCall.

"We've faced them a couple of times and been on the wrong side so it would be great to get one over on them this time around," he admitted.

"We certainly wouldn't want to play against them with 14 men for 70, 75 minutes again.

"There's obviously an added bit of spice with the likes of Mark McCall there and it's two sides who know each other reasonably well and both will be expecting a tough encounter."

While Ulster fans have bad memories of facing the Londoners, recollections of past encounters with Toulouse are quite the opposite.

Ulster faced the French side three times during their fabled Heineken Cup triumph, winning at home in both the pool stage and the quarter-finals, while the 2006 clash was a famous 30-3 victory.

Cunningham started that day, also coming on as a sub in the quarter-final win, and reflected: "Toulouse have never really enjoyed coming to Ravenhill as it was then.

"There's a few changes now, Kingspan Stadium for us and a new coach for them, but maybe it'll be a different frame of mind. In the early days we were always seen as the underdogs and then were able to pull out some pretty big victories against the odds.

"Times have changed. We'll have a packed Kingspan expecting us to put them to the sword."

While Saracens and Toulouse pose a more than familiar challenge, Oyonnax present something of an unknown.

Having only gained promotion to the Top14 in 2013, they were expected to battle against relegation once again last season but instead finished sixth in the table and were then narrowly beaten by Toulouse in the quarter-finals.

Despite their relative new status at the top tier, Cunningham can call on former teammate Jeremy Davidson, head coach at Aurillac since 2011, for further information.

"Oyonnax are not a side at the moment that we would know an awful lot about, we've a lot of experience with Toulouse and know exactly what we're getting with Saracens," he said.

"I'll probably phone up Jeremy and Bernard Jackman at Grenoble to give us a bit of an insight. "Those guys will give us a bit of the flavour of their style but I'd say the coaching the staff, especially Neil Doak, will be going through videos already."

Leinster were handed an especially tough pool after drawing Bath, Wasps and back-to-back-to-back champions Toulon.

It means Paul O'Connell, who joined the mega-rich south of France outfit this week, will be back on Irish soil soon after his international retirement that follows this year's World Cup.

Munster have an easier set of assignments with Anthony Foley's men facing Leicester Tigers, Stade Francais and Treviso.

With the World Cup final at the end of October, all six rounds of pool matches will be played in a 10-week span starting in mid-November.

POOL ONE: Saracens, Ulster, Toulouse, Oyonnax

POOL TWO: Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys, Exeter, Bordeaux

POOL THREE: Glasgow, Northampton, Racing 92, Scarlets

POOL FOUR: Stade Francais, Munster, Leicester, Treviso

POOL FIVE: Bath, Toulon, Leinster, Wasps.

Belfast Telegraph