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Heineken Cup: Home is where the heart is for Ulster

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Confident Ulster captain Johann Muller in training ahead of tomorrow's Heineken Cup game against Clermont at Ravenhill

Confident Ulster captain Johann Muller in training ahead of tomorrow's Heineken Cup game against Clermont at Ravenhill

Darren Kidd

Confident Ulster captain Johann Muller in training ahead of tomorrow's Heineken Cup game against Clermont at Ravenhill

The time for talking is over; now it’s about delivering. Tomorrow afternoon at Ravenhill (3.40pm) Ulster set forth on what they hope will be another long Heineken Cup journey.

History does not weigh in their favour; this is their 17th Euro-venture and only twice have they managed to progress beyond the group stage — 1999 when they went all the way and won it, and last year’s run to the quarter-finals at which stage Northampton Saints ousted them.

Measured alongside fellow-provinces Leinster and Munster, Ulster are Ireland’s poor relations.

Consider: Leinster — the defending champions — have been quarter-finalists on nine occasions. Six times they reached the semi-finals.

And having been winners twice in the past three seasons they are ranked number one this term.

Munster, too, have reached the quarter-finals nine times. Seven times they have appeared in semi-finals. Twice they have been beaten finalists.

And twice — 2006 and 2008 — they have been champions. They are the number three seeds this time.

The pool (4) in which Ulster find themselves — ASM Clermont Auvergne, Leicester Tigers and Aironi — could not be tougher.

Clermont’s form in the French domestic championship, the Super 14, has been excellent, witness eight victories in 10 starts.

And while injury-hit Leicester’s performances in England’s Aviva Premiership have been somewhat less impressive — only two wins in eight matches to date — their Heineken Cup pedigree is top-notch; winners twice, runners-up three times, semi-finalists on six occasions, quarter-finalists nine times.

At first glance, Ulster would appear to be no-hopers.

But that is not the case, for there are two immeasurable factors which may play a big part in how they fare this season.

First is the European record of coach Brian McLaughlin, now poised to embark on his third Heineken Cup campaign.

In his first year in charge, Ulster only just failed to get out of their pool. Twelve months later, they broke that 11-year-old hoodoo in achieving that objective.

Secondly, Ulster’s home record in Europe is excellent.

They have won each of their past eight Heineken Cup outings at Ravenhill. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to October 11, 2008 to discover when Ulster last lost a European match at their Belfast citadel.

Now balance that against the fact that Clermont have lost three of their last four Heineken Cup matches on the road, have been beaten in all five of the Heineken Cup fixtures they have played on Irish soil and suddenly the picture begins to look a little less gloomy.

Certainly Ulster captain Johann Muller is far from despondent.

The 6ft 7ins South African’s confidence was boosted by events last weekend when Clermont lost 37-16 to Stade Francais in the Super 14, while Ulster were beating Connacht 22-3 in the RaboDirect Pro12.

But Muller is a realist; he knows Ulster must improve significantly on last Saturday’s performance against Connacht, albeit that it spelt the welcome end of a run of four successive defeats.

“It was very far from perfect but the encouraging thing was that we created a lot of opportunities. Unfortunately we didn’t finish all of those — small errors and bad passes here and there let us down.

“But I was much happier with that performance than with the week before.

“We didn’t kick a lot of ball away and when we kicked we kicked really well.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction and we’re all really excited about this weekend,” Muller enthused.

Highlighting the preparations for tomorrow’s big test he stressed Ulster’s work this week “on getting the small things into place and getting the process right”.

The former Springboks captain also takes heart from the experience Ulster gained last year.

“We experienced a little bit of success in the Heineken Cup last season and now for us as players and as management we want to make that step up once again.

“We want to do better than we did last year. Yes, it’s a massive step up but as players and as management that is why we play this game. We play to be part of big occasions and obviously this is one of those,” he said.

Muller’s explanation of the difference in the standard of rugby the higher up the ladder one goes was: “In club rugby you get five or six matches in a game. In a Test you get one or two and you have to take those.

“If you don’t you’re probably going to be on the losing end, so it’s really important whenever we create something (against Clermont) that we finish it.”

Meanwhile coach McLaughlin majored the importance of Ulster maintaining their impressive home record in the Heineken Cup.

“You’ve got to win your home games in Europe. You’ve got to be confident and our record in the European Cup over the past couple of years has been excellent,” he said.

“So we’re looking forward to Clermont coming, though we know we’re going to have to be at our best.”

His parting shot was: “We’ve talked about the errors we made last weekend and we’re very hopeful that we’ll get a top-class performance from the lads in every way, shape and form.”

Belfast Telegraph