OPINION: Ulster need to raise the bar again to be back at Europe’s top table
Expectations are understandably high as Ulster look forward to another European odyssey when the jewel in the crown of Northern Hemisphere rugby, the Heineken Cup kicks off this weekend.
Having reached the quarter-finals last season and pushing then champions Leinster all the way in a classic Aviva Stadium contest, the bar has been set high as Ulster look to at least repeat making the last eight, if not progressing even further this year.
There is no doubt Ulster produced their best performances on the European front last season, winning five of their pool matches, the only loss being away to eventual group winners Racing 92.
With two English Premiership sides, Bath and Harlequins, and last year’s European Challenge Cup winners, Clermont Auvergne in Pool Three this term, Ulster are expected to challenge for qualification. They need to start getting that consistency as Leinster and Munster have over the years.
A home draw for any potential quarter-finals is crucial and to do that you almost have to win all six games in the group - it is important to remember that with five pools, even one of the group winners will face an away game in the last eight.
Ulster will open with a testing away encounter against Bath. The clubs last met in back-to-back seasons between 2009-2011, Ulster winning all four games, and that is probably the requirement this time around.
It has been labelled ‘The Burns European Cup’ as the opening contest pits brothers, Billy and Freddie Burns, against each other. That is provided Billy is fit and able to turn out for the Ulster side having missed recent games with injury.
Billy has proven an important component in Ulster’s good early season form and during last year’s campaign he showed his potential. Certainly his return to the side would be a huge boost given the inexperience Bill Johnston and Angus Curtis have shown in deputising for him.
Ulster faced Munster in the Guinness PRO14 on Saturday in a game many felt would reflect where the Northern Province really were this season.
Last year in the same fixture, Munster trounced Ulster 64-7 and with the Southerners having their World Cup contingent back, and Ulster missing key players such as Marcell Coetzee, Iain Henderson and Billy Burns, this year’s game in Limerick was always going to be a challenge. But, Ulster showed some positive signs in spite of losing 22-16, returning from fortress Thomond Park - Munster are unbeaten in 25 matches now - with a losing bonus point.
It leaves them second in Conference A, nine points behind unbeaten Leinster and three points ahead of Cheetahs, having 20 points from six games is a tidy enough return for Dan McFarland’s side.
However, Ulster need to improve their set piece. While the scrum went soundly against Munster, the line-out again wobbled, losing two crucial throws in succession.
Ulster also lacked creativity at times, some precision once again and their ball retention must be better.
However, pleasing will have been their penalty against count, in single figures for the second successive week, something they must maintain against Bath at The Rec on Saturday.
With a home game against Clermont to follow on Friday week (November 22) Ulster could find themselves in a decent position in the pool ahead of the back-to-back games against Harlequins in December.
In terms of the expectations, head coach Dan McFarland, said he could understand it from those looking in from the outside.
“From our point of view, or my point of view, it is a different competition each year,” he explained, “You face different sides obviously, the form those sides are in when you hit them at Champions Cup time has a big influence on things.
“We played well during the Champions Cup last year. Our best rugby was left to the Champions Cup, which you would hope, although that’s not always the case.
“We want to put a little bit of cohesion together, try to get the best players on the pitch at the time and see how it goes.”
Meanwhile, the Heineken Champions Cup is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season and the organisers returned to Cardiff earlier this week to launch this season’s competition. It was on the site of the now Principality Stadium that Toulouse beat Cardiff after extra time in the first final in 1995/96.
The red carpet launch - attended by Premiership and PRO14 qualifiers and a host of dignitaries - was overshadowed by the announcement less than 24 hours earlier that European champions, and three times winners, Saracens, had allegedly been found in breach of the Premiership Rugby’s salary caps for the past three seasons.
The club were docked 35 points and fined over £5million after an independent panel spent nine months investigating the club’s finances. That panel ruled Saracens failed to disclose payments to players in each of the last three seasons. It concluded the club also exceeded the ceiling for payments to senior players in that time.
Although the alleged breaches spanned the last three seasons the points deduction will be applied in full this season. Since the club appealed the decision, the points deduction and fine have been suspended.
Saracens - who have had former Ireland and Ulster player and Ulster coach Mark McCall as their director of rugby for several seasons - have won back-to-back Premiership titles and are reigning European champions.
Having attended the launch in Cardiff on Wednesday, it was fairly clear there was little sympathy from any of the other Premiership clubs who had qualified for Europe, some more outspoken than others.
Saracens, not surprisingly, were not in attendance and that was noted several times from joint compere, Craig Doyle, BT Sport’s Rugby Union presenter .
The impact of the panel’s finding and Saracens actions - appeal pending - will rock the sport to its very core. While the comments of the English Premiership clubs represented - and their obvious anger in some respects - the Irish representatives at the launch, all four Provinces playing in the top tier this season - were, shall we say, more reserved.
There are no salary caps in the Guinness PRO14 and while there is no doubt the four Provinces would like to have budgets some of the English clubs have, it does not directly affect them.
But Saracens are playing in Europe, Munster will face them this season in Pool Four, and Leinster were dethroned as champions in the final last season.
Leinster’s Leo Cullen was not getting caught up in anything controversial either and was adamant there was no bitterness in losing to the English side in last year’s final.
“Ah no, not at all. We just want to pit ourselves against the best that’s out there so how those teams are assembled, that’s for someone else to worry about, in terms of what the regulations on those teams are.
Saracens could still be successful with their appeal, but there will be a bad taste left in the mouth irrespective.
On Saturday at Kingsholm, Gloucester supporters waved fake £50 notes at Saracens and the same fans jeered the London club. But McCall’s side put what was a bad week behind them to win 21-12.
They start their European campaign away to Racing 92 in France this weekend - Pool Four dubbed the ‘Pool of Death’ with Munster and Ospreys in the mix. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, Saracens are unlikely to disappear as serious contenders in defending their European crown.