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Shoots of optimism at Ulster

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Shoots of optimism beginning to push through at Ulster - Neil Best

Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness

Whilst at first glance Ulster’s 2019 European Rugby Champions Cup Pool draw looks tough – I think it could have been a whole lot worse. And despite the many loose ends internally, the shoots of pre-season optimism are beginning to push through at Ulster Rugby. I can genuinely see Ulster successfully navigating their way out of Pool four. As the last team qualified for next year’s premier European Rugby competition, Ulster were the lowest seeds for yesterday’s draw. And although they will be joined in their group by 2018 finalists Racing 92 and semi-finalists Scarlets, neither of these teams were anywhere near flawless at the Pool stage last time out, with Racing 92 and Scarlets both losing twice – the same as Ulster. Racing 92 lost at Castres and Munster, whilst Scarlets has a disastrous six days in October when they lost away to Toulon and at home to Bath.

Maybe the biggest challenge for Ulster is to improve their return on bonus points. Something others have proved incredibly effective at in Europe in recent seasons, whilst Ulster have struggled.

The Belfast club can claim to be better supported too, with higher average attendances in Europe than either Scarlets or Racing 92. Only Leicester, the fourth team drawn in the Pool, were a bigger spectator draw in 2017/18. But the Tigers went on to lose five of their six Pool matches -and two of those losses were home and away to Racing 92.

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Expect Ulster to beat all three at home – they beat Scarlets at home last season in the Pro14 -and Leicester away. After that it’ll come down to tries and margins of victory. And I’d be surprised if more than one team progressed from this Pool to the knockout stages.

In the Challenge Cup, many Ulster fans also had an eye on the fortunes of a Perpignan – a team who have recently added former Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson to their squad. And that draw couldn’t have been any more laced with intrigue. Jackson will line up for his new club against Sale – with whom he is rumoured to have agreed a contract – only for the club to back out in response to external and media pressures. It provides a huge opportunity for him to show Sharks fans exactly what they missed out on. Maybe better still he’ll get temporary reprieve from his Irish exile to play Connacht in Galway, although he may not relish facing the inevitable protestors at the Sportsground.

For some Ulster fans a trip to Galway to show a measure of support is not without attraction but the real prize will be when the fixtures come out and maybe the weekend Ulster play in Paris, a five-hour train ride to Perpignan could be accommodated. Or better still the much shorter journey to Bordeaux who Perpignan have also been drawn with in the Challenge Cup. Either might prove a perfect fans’ adventure.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter

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Shoots of optimism beginning to push through at Ulster - Neil Best