Ulster could be forgiven for wondering if the ping-pong balls are taking the old idiom “if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best” a little too literally.
For the third season among the last five, the northern province, with their oft-stated goal of consistently competing for Championships, will meet the holders in the Champions Cup after yesterday’s draw in Dublin paired them with La Rochelle.
The side coached by Ireland and Munster legend Ronan O’Gara are a mere month detached from history-making heroics that saw them deny Leinster at the very death in Marseille and join Ulster as one-time European champions.
A quirk of the seeding system — or perhaps another failing of what is regardless a wretched format — ensures that no weight is given to that triumph when it comes to next season’s draw, with La Rochelle instead having been assigned a Tier Three designation by virtue of their fifth-placed domestic finish.
While Dan McFarland will have known before the draw that a huge test lay in the offing — had they not been paired with La Rochelle, it would have been big-spending Racing 92 — the reality of the task now at hand will not be lost on him.
As a result of their wins over Leinster, not just in that recent final but in the year prior’s last-four, there is a growing sense that the French outfit are just the sort of side that Irish opposition are ill-suited to facing.
A simply massive group of men, as evidenced by the reported 47 and a half stones on the tight-head side of their scrum in the shape of Uini Atonio and Will Skelton, Ulster can sometimes look under-sized against even average modern sides, let alone these behemoths.
As a result, though, the Ulster brains trust is well used to having to come up with a plan to counteract the greater heft possessed by opposition and the tactical tete-a-tete between McFarland and O’Gara figures to be fascinating.
The latter’s coaching stock has never been higher after masterminding that victory over Leinster when his side were double-digit underdogs. Having left his comfort zone to pursue opportunities as an assistant with Racing 92 and Crusaders before ascending to the top job with his current employers after former Ulster coach Jono Gibbes departed for Clermont, there is a growing sense already that the 45-year-old is almost in a position to pick his next gig.
Many, despite a strong season from Andy Farrell’s Ireland up to the start of this series with the All Blacks, are naturally hoping it will ultimately be head coach of the national side back home.
The Munsterman will need no reminding that coaching fates are fickle though and he will likely have started planning for this coming season long before the unprecedented scenes of celebration on the Bay of Biscay marking this season’s success had subsided.
There will be a fair amount of turnover to his playing squad with four of his match day 23 from the final moving on to Top 14 rivals this summer.
Dany Priso, Ihaia West and Jeremy Sinzelle will all be wearing the red of Toulon next season, while Arthur Retiere, who scored the last-gasp try to snatch the trophy, is to join Toulouse.
Wiaan Liebenberg and former All Black Victor Vito, who missed the final through injury, meanwhile have both retired.
Teddy Thomas joining from Racing 92 is the headline-grabbing addition, although the signing of O’Gara’s fellow Munster native Ultan Dillane from Connacht could yet prove a shrewd piece of business too.
Yoan Tanga, who should win a first French cap in the coming weeks, and out-half Antoine Hastoy have come on board too.
Despite losing to Toulouse in BT6 last season, Ulster will still fancy their chances of repeating their 2018 win over the same opposition at home, though the trip to the Stade Marcel Deflandre instantly becomes among the most daunting on their 2022-23 schedule.
If that is one away day to be circled in an Ulster fan’s calendar, the province’s other pool stage opponents will provide a wholly new trip.
For the first time ever in a competitive game, Ulster will play the Sale Sharks.
The Manchester-based outfit, where Ulster utility back Will Addison made his name, finished sixth in the English Premiership last season but have an improving European pedigree.
Having reached the last-eight only once in their history prior, they’ve made the quarters in each of the last two seasons, losing to French opposition on both occasions in the shape of Racing 92 and La Rochelle.
While Alex Sanderson’s side are losing star South Africans Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager this season, they’ve made some eye-catching signings with both Jonny Hill and George Ford making the move to the AJ Bell.
Joining English team-mates of the stature of Manu Tuilagi, the Curry brothers and the promising scrum-half Raffi Quirke, there will still nonetheless be a strong Springbok influence too.
Sale figure to have five capped South Africans among a seven-strong contingent in their squad next year.
Elsewhere, Leinster will play Racing 92 and Gloucester while Munster will meet Toulouse and Northampton.
Clermont, London Irish, Lyon, Exeter, Bordeaux and Harlequins will be the first sides to make a cross-hemisphere trip in ‘European’ competition after they were drawn to face the URC’s South African newcomers.
Connacht, in the second-tier Challenge Cup, have been paired with Brive and Newcastle.