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Heineken Cup: Aironi set for baptism of fire against Ulster

On paper it all seems to have more than a hint of fait accompli.

No-one really expects the recently formed Aironi to cause much of a stir in Pool Four and the evidence seems forensically sound as the Italians enter Europe on the back of five straight Magners League defeats which has rooted them to the bottom of the table.

Indeed, the prospect of a trip to Ravenhill on a Friday night as a first introduction to the intensity of the European adventure is hardly high on the list of boxes to be ticked for head coach Franco Bernini and his injury-hit squad which has lost centres Roberto Quartaroli and Dylan Des Fountain for the season.

Up to now their form away from home has been simply wretched with a grand total of 120 points being conceded on their combined trips to Munster, the Ospreys and the Scarlets. The only really decent performances Aironi have put together have been at home.

The two points the Viadana-based side have managed to accumulate have both been losing bonuses from battling displays at home, the first to Ulster, when Robbie Diack’s intercept try saved much embarrassment for the visitors, and the second coming last week when Edinburgh just about contrived a successful escape from northern Italy with a 10-9 win.

And yet for all that Aironi are still talking a good game ahead of tonight’s clash, bolstered by how rattled Ulster looked at the Stadio Luigi Zaffanella.

Skipper Quintin Geldenhuys has put down a marker for tonight and Ulster, who have yet to convincingly see off any of their opponents in their four league wins, know that underestimating the Italians is not a place they can inhabit with any degree of comfort.

“We have got Ulster first up and we know them pretty well already,” Italy international Geldenhuys said.

“We played them in the league and just lost out after they scored an interception. Before that we were right in the game.

“This is a game we have targeted and, as it is our first in the Heineken Cup, it is very important to us,” the Aironi skipper said before adding, “We know that they will come at us strong and they will be looking for a good win at home, but hopefully we can show them what we can do.”

For Geldenhuys, his side’s form is not of immense relevance and, indeed, the weekly exposure to the Magners League is bound to be to the Italians’ advantage when put alongside the previous situation.

“When you're used to playing in the Italian domestic league, and then have to step up into Europe like Italian teams have done in the past, it is a culture shock.

“It takes time to adapt your game and be ready for the difference in levels. It is vital to start well so we need to try and get a win in early.”

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The Italians’ rhetoric will surely not be enough.