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Glamour side Racing head for Kingspan in tough Euro draw

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Twenty years on from winning the trophy for the only time in their history, Ulster will be seen as underdogs to reach the quarter-finals of Europe's top competition after being paired with Scarlets, Racing 92 and Leicester Tigers in yesterday's pool draw.

Bottom seeds in Switzerland after qualifying through a play-off with Ospreys, the northern province were always likely to find themselves up against it and, in truth, having been drawn as the last ball out, none of the other pools looked particularly appealing.

In Racing 92, they will be facing one of the glamour sides in European rugby.

There will be no visit to Kingspan Stadium by the world's most famous rugby player Dan Carter having recently departed the Top 14 outfit for a move to Kobelco Steelers, but they will still be a star-studded outfit.

Leone Nakarawa, Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff are all already on the pay-roll, while former Ireland and Munster man Simon Zebo, as well as Scottish fly-half Finn Russell, will soon be plying their trade in the French capital.

Bankrolled by their multi-millionaire president Jacky Lorenzetti, Racing have endured frustration in their chase for Europe's holy grail, twice falling at the final hurdle.

In 2016, they were beaten by a Saracens side led by Ulsterman Mark McCall, while last season it was Leinster who stood in their way, the Irish side winning 15-12 in a tense Bilbao final last month.

In between, they did claim the Top 14 title, a first return on the investment made by Lorenzetti back in 2006 after a period that saw the likes of Andrew Mehrtens, Agustin Pichot, Jamie Roberts and Ireland's own Johnny Sexton brought to the club.

When Ulster visit Paris, it will be to a stadium still in its infancy after Racing moved to the 32,000 U Arena, a state-of-the-art indoor dome, in January of this year.

Although they are used to artificial surfaces thanks to Guinness PRO14 rivals Glasgow and Cardiff, the 4G surface will be another aspect to consider.

Leicester and Scarlets provide more familiar opposition. Ulster were last paired with both sides in this competition as recently as 2014/15 when, despite finishing third in a pool that also contained winners Toulon, they split both games with their English and Welsh opponents.

Having played Scarlets twice yearly in domestic competition, Wayne Pivac's men hold few surprises but have serious pedigree having won the PRO14 in 2017 and finished runners-up last season.

They made their mark in European competition too having reached the semi-finals only to be beaten by Leinster in Dublin's Aviva Stadium.

Leicester Tigers are no strangers to Belfast either.

As well as 2014/15, the sides were paired together a year prior, as well as meeting each other in a pre-season friendly, with Ruan Pienaar's 22-point tour de force at Welford Road - as Ulster went six from six in the pool - a particular highlight of the province's recent European campaigns.

Ulster also enjoyed a big 41-7 win on route to the 2012 final, while a 33-0 win in Belfast during 2004 was another memorable meeting.

Tigers, two times European champions themselves, have been enduring, relatively speaking, lean years of late and qualified for the competition this season thanks to only a fifth place finish in the Premiership.

Still, with the likes of Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Matt Toomua and Ben Youngs lining out for Matt O'Connor's men, they will provide a stern test.

Ulster have not made the last eight since Mark Anscombe's reign but will enter the coming campaign with muted expectations in the midst of a significant overhaul of both players and staff.

Elsewhere, there will be a quick return to Irish soil for former Ulster out-half Paddy Jackson.

The 26-year-old began training with his new side Perpignan this week and the Basque outfit have been drawn against Connacht in the Challenge Cup.

It's a year this week since he last played competitive rugby, his contract with Ulster having been revoked after an internal review by the IRFU in the aftermath of Jackson and his former team-mate Stuart Olding having been acquitted of rape back in March.

The IRFU's High Performance Director David Nucifora this week refused to rule out a return to Irish rugby for either Jackson or Olding in the future.

Holders Leinster were handed a tough draw themselves alongside Wasps, Toulouse and Bath, while Munster were dealt a blow before the draw even took place as they fell into the third band of seeds.

As such, they found themselves in a group that contains French champions Castres, English runners-up Exeter and David Humphreys' Gloucester.

HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP DRAW

Pool 1: Leinster, Wasps, Toulouse, Bath

Pool 2: Castres Olympique, Exeter Chiefs, Munster Rugby, Gloucester Rugby

Pool 3: Saracens, Glasgow Warriors, Lyon, Cardiff Blues

Pool 4: Scarlets, Racing 92, Leicester Tigers, Ulster Rugby

Pool 5: Montpellier, Newcastle Falcons, Edinburgh Rugby, RC Toulon

CHALLENGE CUP DRAW

Pool 1: Northampton Saints, Clermont Auvergne, Dragons, Timisoara Saracens

Pool 2: Pau, Ospreys, Worcester Warriors, Stade Français Paris

Pool 3: Sale Sharks, Connacht Rugby, Bordeaux-Bègles, Perpignan

Pool 4: La Rochelle, Zebre Rugby Club, Bristol Bears, Enisei-STM

Pool 5: Benetton Rugby, Harlequins, Agen, Grenoble

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