CHAMPIONS CUP: Europe hangs in the balance for Ulster

Ulster's Rory Best
Ulster's Rory Best

Being realistic Ulster need to win Friday night’s European Champions Cup pool one clash against Toulouse at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast (7.45pm) if they are to give themselves any realistic chance of making it to the knockout stages.

And that qualification would probably come as one of the three best runners-up given that current group leaders Saracens are expected to pick up close on maximum match points in their games against Oyonnax over the next two weekends.

The popular and traditional back-to-back matches in the pool stages are when you see the key movements in the competition and by 4pm next Sunday (December 20) Saracens will probably have taken full control of Pool One and have one foot already in the knockout stages.

However, Ulster do have a game in hand so, as director of rugby Les Kiss pointed out there probably is not a straight line through how the group sits.

But, the Australian concedes there is a strong perception where it sits and “you would be stupid to think that Saracens do not have an edge in the pool at the moment.”

Irrespective of how you look at it, pointless Ulster are nine points adrift of Saracens and four behind Toulouse - a second defeat at home would realistically signal the end of the optimism in Europe for another season.

Ulster also have a plethora of injuries to contend with and while there are able candidates to step into the gaps, the loss of some key leaders on the pitch is crucial.

However Irish international hooker and captain, Rory Best, returns to lead the side and he has no doubt about what is coming up in Belfast tonight and France again next Sunday.

“When you think about European Rugby certainly historically Toulouse are one of the best. They have the top number of trophies (four) and certainly are one of the top teams in it, “ said Best.

“You look at their performances last year they were a bit patchy in the league and it probably went into their Europe performance.

“Look at them this year currently third in top 14 so they are really going very well there. You just need to look at their team they have a lot of quality throughout. It presents a massive challenge.”

In the next seven weeks, including tonight, Ulster will have their European Cup pool games completed as well as two big inter-pro fixtures in the Guinness PRO12.

Some will see it as a defining period for the club and Best accepts it is a “tough seven weeks.”

“It gives us a good run into things. We need to make sure we are not stupid and not walking away from the fact ultimately it is a results driven business.

“We also have to take the bigger pictures, We need to produce performances. We feel we have enough quality that if we can perform the results will come

“Having said that you would still take the 3-0 victory on Friday night and take that the whole way in for the next seven weeks. We still have to make sure we balance everything over the next seven weeks and that our performances are increasingly getting better.

“We need to get better week on week, we have to be better these next two weeks because Europe hangs in a bit of a balance for us.”

“You also need to be peaking at the end of the season, we need to make sure that it is not like Ulster teams in the past when we peak at Christmas and then a hanging on.

“ It is a very important seven weeks, but we have to make sure we keep improving right through those seven weeks and we also feel if we can do that the results will follow.”