Last season’s runners-up Ulster have been drawn in Heineken Cup Pool 4 alongside Northampton Saints, Glasgow Warriors and Castres Olympique.
Ulster were defeated by Northampton Saints at the quarter-final stage of the 2010/11 competition and will enjoy having the chance to make amends next season.
Ulster-born number 8 Roger Wilson has just returned to the province after a four-year stint with the Saints, and he will be eagerly anticipating the two pool clashes next season.
RaboDirect PRO12 side Glasgow Warriors will provide a familiar but difficult challenge after an excellent domestic campaign, while they have also recruited strongly in the off season.
Castres Olympique, who finished fourth in the French Top 14 Championship this season, will have a familiar face in their ranks in the shape of South African back rower Pedrie Wannenburg who left Ulster last month.
The province’s director of rugby David Humphreys admits that the draw for the pool stages of the 2012/13 Heineken Cup could have been worse for his side.
“On the whole we are happy with the draw, it could have been better and it could have been worse,” he explained.
“There are two very difficult pools and there are a couple of pools which are probably a little bit easier. All four teams will probably look at the pool and think they have a realistic chance of progressing.”
The former Ulster and Ireland out-half is well aware of the quality not only in Pool 4, but throughout the competition:
“We played the Saints in the 2011 quarter-finals and witnessed first-hand how powerful a team they are. We know Glasgow really well from our league meetings and there is no doubt they are a team who are evolving and have shown dramatic improvement.
“Likewise Castres, who have just come off the back of a very good Top 14 campaign and have proved how difficult they are to beat.”
He added: “The top teams have shown that to win competitions like the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirect PRO12, you have to build sustained success over a period of time.
“You see teams making the knock-out stages one season but then they can’t get out of their group the following year.
“The challenge for us is to be consistently making the last-eight. If we want to win the Heineken Cup, we’ve got to be qualifying from our group every year and get more experience playing in big matches.”
Mark Anscombe will take over as Ulster head coach for the 2012/13 season and Humphreys plans to sit down soon with the New Zealander to plan for the season ahead.
“Once Mark comes in we will sit down and set out our targets for next year. But I would be very happy to say that after qualifying for the quarter-finals for the past two years, one of our goals will be to get out of our pool again,” insisted Humphreys.
:If we want continue to take steps forward, then that must be a minimum requirement. Last season our form in the PRO12 was not as good as we hoped, so that is something we will have to address as well.”
Humphreys believes that the squad being assembled for next season, which includes the returning Tommy Bowe and Wilson, will be stronger than the one that reached the final at Twickenham last month.
“I think next year our squad will be stronger. Over the past two seasons our young players have gained experience of competing at the top end of European competition.
“We also have more players playing International rugby and that will stand us in good stead too.
“Losing the final last month has made everyone at Ulster more determined to succeed, both in Europe and in the PRO12. I think we are in much better shape going into next season than we were this time last year.”
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