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Ulster potentially eyeing up revenge mission with Tigers after Champions Cup format confirmed


Ulster's John Cooney in action against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.

Ulster's John Cooney in action against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Ulster's John Cooney in action against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.

Ulster could be set for a quick revenge mission against Leicester Tigers in next season's Heineken European Champions Cup after the format of the tournament was confirmed by organisers EPCR.

With the conclusions of the Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 at the weekend, EPCR have confirmed the tiers for the pool stage draw, and it could set up Dan McFarland's side for a swift reunion with the English side that knocked them out of last season's Challenge Cup.

Having finished with the third-best record in last season's Guinness PRO14, Ulster have been confirmed as the competition's third seeds for the Champions Cup, which places them in Tier 2 for the pool stages.

The draw will see all 24 teams - eight from each major European league - divided into two pools of 12, with the top eight teams after four rounds of fixtures progressing to the knockout stages.

For the first time there will be a Round-of-16 that will be played over home and away legs before the competition progresses to the more traditional one-legged quarter-finals, semi-finals and then final, which will be held in Marseille on May 28.

Due to the extended number of teams, there will only be four pool games as opposed to the normal six, with teams only facing two other opponents rather than three.

As a Tier 2 team, Ulster will face a Tier 3 opponent from each of England and France, and that could be the Tigers, who are ranked sixth in the Gallagher Premiership.

The Midlands outfit dashed the province's hopes of silverware last season when they fought back to claim victory in their Challenge Cup semi-final at Welford Road, but there could be a chance at some quick revenge for McFarland's men.

If it is not the Tigers that Ulster are drawn against then it will be Northampton Saints, who Ulster defeated in the quarter-finals of last season's Challenge Cup, meaning either way there will be revenge on the cards no matter who they are drawn against.

On the French side of the draw, it will be one of either ASM Clermont Auvergne or Stade Français Paris for the Kingspan Stadium side, with Ulster certainly more familiar with one team than the other.

The Irish province have faced Clermont on six occasions since they last played Stade Francais, winning three of those meetings, and they could come up against former head coach Jono Gibbes, who will take up the same role at the Stade Marcel-Michelin next season.

It's been 12 years since Ulster met Stade Francais, who have been through a dip in form for several years, but the Parisians are back in the top tier of European rugby again and would provide an intriguing challenge for the province.

The draw will be made on a yet to be determined date, while EPCR have also said they are working on a new shareholder agreement and a format for the second-tier Challenge Cup.

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Teams ranked in the same tier from each league cannot be drawn into the same pool - so, for instance, if Ulster are drawn into Pool A from Tier 2 of the PRO14 then Connacht, who are the other team in Tier 2, will automatically go into Pool B.

2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup qualifiers

Gallagher Premiership: 1. Harlequins, 2. Exeter Chiefs, 3. Bristol Bears, 4. Sale Sharks, 5. Northampton Saints, 6. Leicester Tigers, 7. Bath Rugby, 8. Wasps

Guinness PRO14: 1. Leinster Rugby, 2. Munster Rugby, 3. Ulster Rugby, 4. Connacht Rugby, 5. Scarlets, 6. Ospreys, 7. Cardiff Rugby, 8. Glasgow Warriors

TOP 14: 1. Stade Toulousain, 2. Stade Rochelais, 3. Racing 92, 4. Union Bordeaux-Bègles, 5. ASM Clermont Auvergne, 6. Stade Français Paris, 7. Castres Olympique, 8. Montpellier Hérault Rugby

2021/22 key dates

Round 1 – 10/11/12 December

Round 2 – 17/18/19 December

Round 3 – 14/15/16 January 2022

Round 4 – 21/22/23 January 2022

Round of 16 (1st leg) – 8/9/10 April 2022

Round of 16 (2nd leg) – 15/16/17 April 2022

Quarter-finals – 6/7/8 May 2022

Semi-finals – 13/14/15 May 2022

Challenge Cup final – Friday 27 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

Heineken Champions Cup final – Saturday 28 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

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