Ulster about to learn Heineken Cup fate
Ulster fingers will be crossed that they avoid a potential 'group of death' when the draw for the 2011/12 Heineken Cup is made tomorrow at Twickenham (noon).
With seeding based on performances in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup over the past four years, Brian McLaughlin's men are in the third tier.
As per the competition rules, ordinarily no pool can have more than one team from the same country. This year, however, England has seven qualifiers as a result of Harlequins having won the Anlim Challenge Cup.
The structure means Ulster cannot be pitted against Irish rivals Leinster, who are the defending champions, or Munster, the winners of last term's Magners League. Both are in tier one.
Nor can they be in the same group as Heineken Cup debutants Connacht, who enter the fray at tier four level.
Ulster are joined in the third tier by Saracens, Gloucester, Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets and Edinburgh.
All of those six clubs will be drawn against one from each of the other three tiers and Ulster's top-flight opposition will be provided by Toulouse, Leicester, Cardiff Blues or Biarritz Olympique, whom they faced in last season's competition.
Four-times winners Toulouse would pose a formiable threat, ditto Leicester Tigers who have been champions twice.
One imagines Ulster's preference would be Cardiff whom they defeated twice in last season's Magners League campaign. That's a 4/1 shot, however.
The tier two possibilities are Northampton Saints, Bath, Harlequins, London Irish, ASM Clermont Auvergne or Ospreys.
All are rather tricky opponents.
Bath and Irish were fifth and sixth respectively while Quins, who were seventh, won last season's Amlin Challenge Cup, beating Stade Francais in the final after putting paid to Munster at Thomond Park in the penultimate round.
With four of the six second tier runners being English Premiership outfits, each would offer stiff opposition, particularly on their own patch, albeit Ulster's record against Bath is excellent, witness home and away victories over them in the Heineken Cup in 2009/10 and again last season.
Harlequins were in Ulster's group in 2008/09 when the side with home advantage on the day won on each occasion.
McLaughlin's men may also renew hostilities with last season's Heineken Cup runners-up, Northampton, who of course ended Ulster's interest at the quarter-final stage last season.
London Irish have only progressed beyond the group stage on one occasion - 2007/08 when they made it to the semi-finals only to lose 21-15 to Toulouse.
The French option is ASM Clermont Auvergne, though having to face them at Stade Marcel Michelin would be a huge test of Ulster's mettle, mental and physical.
Don't forget that Leinster lost 20-13 away to the French, their only defeat en route to last season's title.
The other possibility is yet another two-dates pairing with Celtic League bed-fellows, Ospreys. Obviously Ulster know them well, though that cuts both ways, of course.
Ulster's tier four opposition will be provided by the French trio - Castres Olympique, Montpellier and Racing Metro 92 - or either of the Italian pair Benetton Treviso and Aironi Rugby.
Of that quintet, Aironi are the club Ulster know best having played - and beaten - the Viadana-based outfit four times in 2010/11.
The make-up of the four tiers is:
Tier One: Leinster, Toulouse, Munster, Cardiff Blues, Biarritz Olympique, Leicester Tigers
Tier Two: Northampton Saints, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys, Bath, Harlequins, London Irish
Tier Three: Ulster, Saracens, Gloucester, Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets, Edinburgh
Tier Four: Connacht, Benetton Treviso, Castres Olympique, Montpellier, Racing Metro 92, Aironi