Treviso have come a long way in the past few years, and are a far cry from the whipping boys they used to be. They may not have much hope of grabbing an away win, but have made their home ground, the Stadio Monigo, a very difficult place to win, as all the RaboDirect teams will attest. Indeed, last season they beat the Ospreys there, and came within a point of beating the Tigers, whom they face again this year and will be confident of challenging again. They are certainly no strangers to the way the Tigers play, having been drawn in their pool in three of the last five seasons – last season’s 14-13 loss, compared with their 16-60 drubbing in 2008, is proof of how far they have come.
Last season: finished bottom of a tough pool, but still managed an admirable win over the Ospreys and came within a point of getting a bonus point at Welford Road.
Prediction: Treviso are undoubtedly on the up, but in a pool with three teams that can have genuine ambitions of challenging for the Cup, it is tough to see them finishing anywhere other than bottom of the pool. Expect to see them wreck at least one team’s qualification chances with a win at the Monigo, however.
The beginning to the Tigers’ season has been a mixed bag, with a disappointing away loss to Bath and a frustrating home draw with the Saints taking the sheen off an impressive away win over Exeter. They have some serious injury issues, but none is as devastating as Manu Tuilagi – without his go-forward in the midfield they have struggled at times to get all-important front foot ball. They are no strangers to their pool opponents this year, and Friday night’s opening round trip to Ravenhill represents a shot at redemption after Ulster pumped them there 41-7 two years ago. They also so nearly came unstuck against Treviso last year, and in a pool that will be devilishly difficult to get out of (leaving the prospect of a best-placed runner-up very unlikely) they will know there is no scope to throw points away in Italy. Keeping captain Toby Flood fit and healthy is a must if they are to have a chance of qualifying.
Last season: did well to come out of a tough pool that included Toulouse, Ospreys and Treviso, and were duly rewarded with a trip to Toulon in the quarter-finals, in which they performed well but ultimately lost.
Prediction: this is probably the most difficult pool to predict. The Tigers have the pedigree and the know-how to progress, but their injuries may hinder them in the opening couple of rounds – especially that trip to Ravenhill, where a vital bonus point must be the absolute minimum. If they get that, they could well top the pool.
Montpellier are an intriguing proposition this year. They have a squad packed with talent, set to be bolstered by the imminent arrival of Rene Ranger who will arrive in time to play the last few rounds. The big issue is, however: will the Heineken be their main focus this year? They currently sit joint top of the Top 14, and there’s every chance that will become their focus. Still, they are incedibely tough to beat at home, as Toulon found out last season when they were smashed there (the 23-3 scoreline did not do their dominance justice) and Clermont have this season, being beaten by an astonishing 40 points. Very, very few teams inflict that kind of loss on Clermont. Of course the old cliché is that French teams can’t travel, and the opening nine rounds of the Top 14 have sadly backed that up. They have won only once on the road this season, so how will they perform in the most intense of atmospheres at Ravenhill and Welford Road?
Last season: came through a relatively simple pool (Toulon aside) as best runners up before crashing out to Clermont.
Prediction: they will beat all comers at home, but poor away form will see them fail to qualify – having not played at Treviso, they may well come unstuck there.
Ulster’s European form has been good over the last few years, despite being drawn in some tricky pools. They will have been buoyed this week by the news that Ruan Pienaar has signed a contract extension and ignored the overtures of Toulon, and he will play a big role in their campaign inside young fly-half Paddy Jackson. The start of their RaboDirect campaign this year has been the definition of a mixed bag, with disappointing losses away to the Dragons and, more worryingly, at home to Glasgow, mixed in with a demolishing of Treviso and a very impressive win against the Ospreys in Swansea. They will remember fondly the last time the Tigers visited Ravenhill, as they hammered home a bonus point win that put them in the driving seat to ultimately qualify from a difficult pool – giving them the confidence to make it all the way to the final. In such a tough pool once again, whoever does qualify will know they have the quality to go all the way.
Last season: looked odds-on to get a home quarter-final with three away wins, but a shock loss at home to Northampton saw them end up travelling to London to take on Saracens, a game they ultimately lost.
Prediction: it is going to be one from three in this pool, and Ulster’s experience over the last few years will set them in good stead. I can see them ultimately challenging the Tigers for top spot, but with the English champions in better shape than a few years ago Ulster may have to settle for a spot in the Amlin.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images