Ulster Rugby have been absent from the Heineken Cup knock-out stages ever since their day of glory in the spotlight when they lifted European club rugby’s most coveted prize in Dublin back in 1999 with a 21-6 demolition of Colomiers.
For the last 11 tournaments they have failed to get past the Pool stages but now they are in with a real chance of ending that run as they face a potential make-or-break Pool 4 showdown with group leaders Biarritz Olympique at Ravenhill on Saturday.
The French club, beaten Heineken Cup finalists both seven months ago and in 2006, top the Pool with a three-point buffer over Ulster but have already slipped up once on the road this season when they went down 28-27 at tournament newcomers Aironi Rugby.
“Getting to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals has been one of our prime objectives for the season – it is most certainly where we want to be,” said head coach Brian McLaughlin.
“From an Ulster Rugby perspective the match against Biarritz is an extremely important game because with the way the group has gone we have it all to play for – there are two games left and they are two games we must win.
“However, Biarritz are an extremely strong side, they have a great pedigree in the Heineken Cup, they were last season’s finalists and have openly stated they want to win this tournament.
“In players like Imanol Harinordoquy, Dimitri Yachvili and Damien Traille they have some smashing individuals and we are under no illusions that we are in for an extremely tough game.
“Biarritz are a top quality side, no doubt about that, and although they had a little hiccup when they lost at Aironi, they will come here looking for the win – I believe it is going to be a smashing game.
“That said, we have a proud home record in the Heineken Cup over last two seasons, winning our last seven tournament matches at Ravenhill, and I am sure we will give Biarritz a warm Belfast welcome.
“We know what we have to try and do, which is to get the win we need and go to Aironi to play for a quarter-final place.”
Last season Ulster broke their English “duck” when they won on English soil for the first time, beating Bath Rugby 28-10, and they have now doubled that overall tally against the same opponents.
Both contests against the former fellow Heineken Cup champions ended in four-point wins for the Irish team to go alongside a 30-6 opening round victory over Aironi.
“That debut win in England against Bath last season – when we also beat them home and away in the Pool stages – gave us the confidence to go back there this year knowing what we are capable of achieving,” said McLaughlin.
“As far as the defeat in Biarritz goes, obviously we were not happy with the end result but we did have opportunities in the first half but we did not put points on board. Then in the second half we made a few errors that Biarritz pounced upon and all credit to them for the win and the way they took those chances.
“However, our Heineken Cup destiny is in our own hands and although we know we are still an improving and emerging side, we know we are not there yet and that we have plenty of work to do.
“We are not as consistent as we would like but we feel we are in the process of getting where we want to be and with the type of rugby we want to play.”