Pool 4: Ulster, Castres, Northampton, Glasgow
By Brendan Cole
Ulster open with a potentially dangerous home clash against Castres before a trip to Scotland to face Glasgow.
After that, it’s a potentially decisive pair of clashes with Northampton.
Qualification is do-able but there is no doubt that this is a dangerous pool for new head coach Mark Anscombe, who has been bullish about targetting silverware this season.
The start to the RaboDirect Pro12 has been perfect with five wins from five, but there are few who would claim that Ulster have been totally fluent so far this season and they barely beat Munster on home soil.
On the positive side, the return of Ruan Pienaar means they have just about the ideal player to relieve the stickiness in their rugby.
The key question for Anscombe is whether the South African star is best used at scrum-half in combination with Paddy Jackson or at out-half with Paul Marshall inside.
It is complicated by the fact that Pienaar’s own best position is probably nine, but Marshall arguably has the edge over Jackson.
The other major issue is Ulster’s lack of quality and depth in the centre – could Tommy Bowe end up in there as he often did for the Ospreys?
Elsewhere, the back-three options are strong with Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble vying for wing positions, and the quick and creative Jared Payne impressing as effectively a new signing at full-back after missing last year due to injury.
It is difficult to say which of Castres and Northampton will prove more dangerous.
The French club were Top 14 semi-finalists last year and have started well again this time, showing they retain a capacity to take on the big boys despite a squad that is short on big names.
On the imports front, Rory Kockott and Seremia Bai have proved as effective as the megastar buys of other teams, while Max Evans and Marcel Garvey are left-field acquisitions that have worked out well.
Castres are also under-represented in the French Test side, with only the nippy winger Marc Andreu appearing regularly.
Again, it doesn’t seem to matter and whatever about at Ravenhill, Ulster cannot plan on picking up any points in the south of France in the final round.
Northampton are also a major danger, though they may well be wary of the Heineken after two major setbacks in the competition in the last two years: the second half collapse against Leinster and last season’s capitulation to Munster at Franklins Gardens were major psychological blows.
Jim Mallinder remains in charge – he might well be England coach were it not for European rugby – but James Downey, Chris Ashton and Jon Clarke are among those who have moved on.
The tight five is still a powerhouse - Dylan Hartley, Brian Mujati, Soane Tonga’uiha, Christian Day, Courtney Lawes are all still there – but the backline has declined due to those departures, though Ben Foden remains a danger man at full-back.
To be fair, Saints currently lead the Premiership with five wins from six and will be many peoples’ pick to go through.
In contrast, Glasgow look beatable home and away and the fixture comes at a good time, assuming Ulster can get that opening win over Castres, with Chris Cusiter and Duncan Weir set to miss at least the first two rounds of the Heineken.
That gives Glasgow a problem at half-back to combine with an ongoing lack of creativity behind the scrum, where the Evans brothers used to bring the spark in the backline (Thom was forced out of the game by injury; Max is now with Pool rivals Castres).
A lot will fall to John Barclay, Al Kellock and the rest of the pack but Ulster have already beaten the Warriors this season this season and will surely put everything they have into doing so again in Round Two.
Ulster have issues – the suspicion that the tight five could struggle against a really high quality unit and that lack of size and quality in the centre - but their strong start to the season, good half-backs and strength out wide could yet prove enough to get them through.