Ulster’s Heineken Cup campaign will commence this Friday against a well-drilled Castres Olympique side, who can be quite a handful when firing on all cylinders. Subsequent pool rivals include an in-form Glasgow Warriors squad and the powerhouse giants of the Aviva Premiership, Northampton Saints.
Castres are contesting at Ravenhill on the back of a scintillating home defeat of Clermont Auvergne, which saw an “Olympian” revival in a dramatic second half display. The squad will be brimming with confidence as they arrive on Belfast’s shores, whilst Ulster will have to step up a gear from last week’s lacklustre triumph over Connacht. The French line up with a top-class place-kicker in Romain Teulet and an Ulster legend in Pedrie Wannenburg, however there should only be one outcome.
Although Castres present a physical challenge, Mark Anscombe’s men possess the power up front and flare outback to emerge victorious. Home soil is definitely an advantage, with Castres proving difficult on their own turf, as Leinster uncovered in 2008/09. Ulster’s big-game players to dominate, with Best and Ferris commanding from the start and the return of Ruan Pienaar adding fuel to the performance.
Glasgow Warriors are a side who will be tough to beat away in front of passionate home support. With an injection of £1.2 million this year, the squad has acquired greater depth across a number of positions. Major signings of South African Josh Strauss and former All Black Angus MacDonald are dynamic additions to the back-row, whilst Byron McGuigan adds pace through his former links with the Scottish sevens squad.
Amongst their ranks, the Warriors possess the RaboDirect PRO12 Young Player of the Season in Stuart Hogg, whose electrifying displays may cause Ulster some trouble. Having said this, Tommy Bowe’s impressive form recently will be more than a match for the threat of the Glasgow backline. With Ulster successful in four of their past five meetings with the fiery Scottish outfit, the odds look likely to prevail for the red and white army.
The double-header against Northampton Saints is where the real test will emerge. Roger Wilson’s former club structures itself around an aggressive pack which can destroy the best of teams. Key men will include international stars such as Dylan Hartley and Ben Foden, who will seek to link the team from hooker to full-back. The Saints’ emphatic start to the Premiership season is one to consider, and if it does continue they will surely be a difficult side to beat.
Although strong up front, the English side are lacking a fly-half with presence. The door could well open for young Paddy Jackson here, who’s skill-set and confidence is growing from strength to strength with each game. Although the visit to Franklin’s Gardens may require something special, a victory over the Saints would be expected at Ravenhill given Ulster’s home advantage.
The desire to go one step further this year combined with the depth of talent across the squad should see Ulster top the pool table, with Northampton coming a close second.
The road to Dublin 2013 will certainly begin as it means to go on.