Ulster will play Scarlets, Racing 92 and Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Champions Cup 2018-2019 group stage after the draw was made this afternoon.
The meeting between Ulster and Racing is the first time the sides have met in a European group stage while they last faced Leicester Tigers in the 2015/15 campaign. It is the first time that Ulster and Scarlets have been drawn together in the same group since 2008-2009 in the competition.
It is a tough group as Scarlets were beaten finalists in the PRO14 this season and Racing 92 were runners up to Leinster in the European Champions Cup and semi finalists in the TOP14.
Racing will add Simon Zebo and Finn Russell to their roster at the conclusion of their contracts with Munster and Glasgow Warriors respectively, with the latter having big boots to fill as he replaces Dan Carter who is off to Japan at the end of the season. Zebo links up with Donnacha Ryan at the Parisian side.
Racing possess 14 French internationals in their squad including Teddy Thomas, Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat, Fabien Sanconnie and Bernard Le Roux who have been involved in France’s tour of New Zealand. Like most French sides, I expect them to prioritise their home fixtures and be very difficult to beat at home. They lost two home games last season with the final defeat coming in the TOP14 semi finals against Castres.
Racing have been named in the same group as Leicester Tigers for the third consecutive season with the French side winning three of the previous four matches. Leicester, like Ulster, have been going through a rough spell and failed to qualify for the Aviva Premiership semi finals for the first time ever this season.
Nevertheless Ulster have enjoyed some fierce battles with the East Midlands side over the years and have always come out on top when playing at Ravenhill. Long serving coach Richard Cockerill was dismissed midway through the 2016/17 season and they now have former Leinster boss, Matt O’Connor at the helm. O’Connor joins Dominic Ryan, who made 113 appearances for Leinster at Leicester.
Telusa Veainu is an elusive runner from fullback, while Ben Youngs, George Ford and Jonny May provide the obvious threats from half back and on the wing. Ellis Genge is a promising prop and is aged just 23. Brendan O’Connor is a useful operator in the back row while Ulster will face Guy Thompson for the second time in as many years as he moves to Tigers from Wasps in the off season.
The Scarlets are the final team to make up the group and they need no introductions. Thankfully for Ulster however, Tadhg Beirne is away to Munster but that still leaves James Davies in the back row. The rugby played by the Scarlets has been a breath of fresh air in the previous two seasons and they will be hoping to go one further than their semi final finish last season
Much to the annoyance of supporters, dates for the games have not been decided and will remain undecided until at least a couple of weeks after the fixtures of the domestic leagues are announced. Last year they were announced on the 22nd August while they were announced the previous season on the 19th August, so it’s likely that they will be announced at a similar time.
The one thing we have been told about the fixtures are the matchday dates:
|Round one||13th-15th October|
|Round two||20th-22nd October|
|Round three||8th-10th December|
|Round four||15th-17th December|
|Round five||12th-14th January|
|Round six||19th-21st January|
The FRU predicts: yes it’s a bit premature to be offering predictions but this is a tricky group for Ulster and I feel Ulster’s influence will only be to prevent Racing or Scarlets to progress. It’s unlikely that two teams from this group will qualify.