Why Ulster have to beat Bath if they want to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup
As Ulster prepare to embark on another endeavour to win their first European trophy since 1999, there will need to be an extra focus placed on Bath this weekend.
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And no, it's not because it's European week and everyone needs to raise their level just that little bit more. That should be a given due to the nature of the competition - this is as close to Test rugby as you'll get at club level.
Rather, this weekend's clash at The Rec is important because it's the first game, and winning your first game is paramount when it comes to qualifying for the knockouts in Europe. While in the league you can get away with a few patchy results early in the campaign, you won't recover from a bad start in Europe.
Dan McFarland will likely be drilling that into his players' skulls until it's all they can hear this week, and if he's not then he should be. History very emphatically tells us that Ulster only succeed in Europe whenever they come out of the gates hot and, with a very testing pool again this time around, that will probably be the case again.
In the six seasons that Ulster have reached the last-eight in Europe, on five of those occasions they have won their opening fixture. The other was, ironically, back in the 1998/99 season - what happened that campaign, I wonder? - when they drew 38-38 against Edinburgh first up in their pool, so it wasn't an insurmountable result like it could have been.
Not once have Ulster lost their opening game and gone on to make the play-offs. Indeed, the closest they came was when they missed out on a knockout berth on points difference back in 2015/16 having been beaten 27-9 by Saracens at Kingspan Stadium in the opening game.
In the seasons they've reached the last-eight, their opening wins have been fairly comfortable too. 24-10 over Leicester Tigers last season. 22-16 over the Tigers again in 13/14. 41-17 against Castres back in 12/13. 16-11 against Clermont Auvergne, who come to Belfast next weekend, in 11/12 and 30-6 against Italian minnows Aironi the year before that.
Of course, winning your opening game does not guarantee qualification, as reflected in the fact that Ulster have won their opening game eight times and not reached the knockouts. That means that only 38.46% of the time, Ulster winning their opening game in the pool has resulted in them making the quarter-finals.
But the stats do reflect that winning your first game is vital. Not only does it get you on the board early doors, it builds momentum in Europe, which is always so different to league play, no matter how it's dressed up. And if Ulster's history is anything to go by then they simply have to win against Bath if they're to stand any chance of going through to the last-eight.
Although the common thread within those wins is apparent: they've all been at home. In fact, Ulster have never reached the knockouts of the Champions Cup after starting their pool campaign away from home, as they do on Saturday. And they've only won two of the eight away openers they've had in the European Cup altogether, with their last coming a whopping 18 years ago in 2001 against Treviso.
Finding road wins in England have proven tough too, especially when they come in the opening game. Ulster have failed to win both of their opening games in England - against the Tigers (14/15) and Northampton Saints (02/03) - although they do have a good record against them at home in opening games with four wins from six.
As always, the stats have to be taken in context. For instance, Ulster's side of the late 2000s was not at the same standard as that of the early 2010s, while an opening round game against Aironi is considerably less taxing than welcome the salary-cap-dodging Saracens to Kingspan Stadium at the height of their powers. And only two away games for their opening tie since 2003 muddies the water somewhat, diluting their opportunities to win on the road during their purple patch.
But it doesn't shy away from the fact that getting an early win down on paper is crucial for a side looking to make a deep run into the Champions Cup, which Ulster should have at the forefront of their thoughts given their success last season. While it may be a tricky pool, they've been granted a favourable schedule with Clermont at home early in the campaign and their double-header against Harlequins in December.
That means they have to buck the trend and win away from home in England for the first time. But, of course, none of the stats that have gone before matter given that Ulster have never lost to Bath in European competition, winning all four of their previous meetings, including two at The Rec itself, which points to nothing else but an away win on Saturday.
So they'll say, anyway.
Ulster's opening game results in Europe
2018-19: W 24-10 vs Leicester Tigers (H)
2017-18: W 19-9 vs Wasps (H)
2016-17: L 13-28 vs Bordeaux-Begles (A)
2015-16: L 9-27 vs Saracens (H)
2014-15: L 18-25 vs Leicester Tigers (A)
2013-14: W 22-16 vs Leicester Tigers (H)
2012-13: W 41-17 vs Castres Olympique (H)
2011-12: W 16-11 vs Clermont Auvergne (H)
2010-11: W 30-6 vs Aironi (H)
2009-10: W 26-12 vs Bath (H)
2008-09: L 10-26 vs Stade Francais Paris (H)
2007-08: L 14-32 vs Gloucester (H)
2006-07: W 30-3 vs Toulouse (H)
2005-06: W 20-7 vs Benetton Treviso (H)
2004-05: W 21-16 vs Cardiff Blues (H)
2003-04: L 15-24 vs Newport-Gwent Dragons (A)
2002-03: L 9-32 vs Northampton Saints (A)
2001-02: W 33-28 vs Benetton Treviso (A)
2000-01: W 32-23 vs Cardiff (H)
1999-00: L 12-26 vs Bourgoin (A)
1998-99: D 38-38 vs Edinburgh (H)
1997-98: L 12-18 vs Glasgow (H)
1996-97: W 41-34 vs Caledonia (A)
1995-96: L 6-46 vs Cardiff (A)
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