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Ulster can match expectation and prove to be a European knockout once again: Cunningham

 

Happy days: Rob Herring (left) leads the celebrations after Ulster's win over Clermont in 2016
Happy days: Rob Herring (left) leads the celebrations after Ulster's win over Clermont in 2016
Bryn Cunningham
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

If variety is the spice of life then yesterday's Heineken Champions Cup draw for next season served Ulster the equivalent of a chicken korma.

Clermont and Harlequins, two teams they have faced in the last three seasons, were the first sides out of the hat, later supplemented by Bath, who at least have had a near 10-year gap since their last visit to Belfast.

While low on novelty value, however, head coach Dan McFarland - who only has to look south to Munster to see how tough things could have been - will likely see this as a real opportunity.

The first stroke of luck came when, with a one in three shot, the ping pong balls bounced their way to land Ulster in the second rather than third group of seeds. The next came when they avoided Saracens, the best side in Europe, who had something of a hoodoo over them even before they emerged as a dominant force.

From there, things remained largely favourable.

Disregarding that old cliche that there are no easy draws in Europe now - there aren't, but some games are still bigger than others - Ulster drew one near-annual powerhouse in Clermont and two sides who haven't made much of a mark at all on the competition in recent years.

Bath, who finished sixth in England, one place below Harlequins, haven't made the knockouts for five seasons. They'll be under a new coach next season - though so too, of course, were Ulster when they made the last eight last campaign - and are a good but not great outfit.

Harlequins are a much improved side than the one that shipped more than 50 points in Belfast just two seasons ago, while also losing a snow-swept encounter on their own patch, but, again, won't be seen as a great bet to be playing knockout rugby come the spring.

If Ulster can hold serve at home, and, having beaten Clermont at Kingspan Stadium three seasons ago, they'll believe that they can, and beat one of their English hosts on the road, they'll feel they can replicate last season's surprising march to the quarter-finals.

The only difference, though, will be expectation.

This time 12 months ago, after a horrible season and the loss of a host of key players, Ulster faced a pool alongside Racing 92, Scarlets and Leicester Tigers, two of the previous season's semi-finalists and one of the competition's proudest sides.

Few gave them any chance of ending their five-year absence from the competition's quarter-finals but they saved their best for the big occasions, winning five from six and ultimately losing a quarter-final they should have won against then champions and eventual finalists Leinster.

Operations manager Bryn Cunningham, a member of the 1999 European Cup-winning team, admitted yesterday that success will hinge on once again raising their game on the big stage.

"The season just gone, we've had a strong campaign. Winning five of six in the pools was a great achievement," he said.

"Coming so close to usurping Leinster in the quarter-finals has certainly given us an appetite to go at least one step further, but that's no easy task. You can't rest on your laurels because every team is getting better.

"It's six games and you've got to be at your best in all six if you want to have any chance of getting out of the group stages."

Relieved to have avoided Saracens, Cunningham sees a testing but ultimately manageable pool.

"Every team is incredibly strong," he reflected. "The main thing for us, and most other teams I'm sure, was to avoid Saracens. They're a phenomenal side as we've seen last season, and for the last couple of seasons, winning the double.

"Clermont are a top side. We've been there a couple of times before. It's one of the best atmospheres in European rugby. That's one for the fans as much as the players and staff.

"We've two English sides in there as well. We've had that before on a few occasions. They're going to be tough battles.

"Bath have a very proud history. They've won the European Cup many years ago, like ourselves, but they haven't been in the latter stages for a number of years and they'll want to be at the sharp end moving forward.

"There'll certainly be no easy games."

Elsewhere yesterday, Ulster's Guinness PRO14 rivals Southern Kings announced that head coach Deon Davids will leave the side.

Davids has been in charge for both the South African team's difficult two seasons in northern hemisphere rugby.

"I have had a daunting but at the same time rewarding experience as head coach of the Isuzu Southern Kings and the time has come for me to hand the reigns to the next head coach," he said.

"I need to grow further as a coach and look forward to doing that.

"The Kings represent an important rugby region and I trust that with sufficient resources it will play its rightful role in South African rugby.

"I want to thank Rassie Erasmus for giving me the opportunity to coach the Isuzu Southern Kings, as he played a direct role in my appointment."

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