Kearney believes Ulster pose tough test at home in Europe

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Kearney believes Ulster pose tough test at home in Europe
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Ulster Rugby have tricky Heineken Champions Cup fixtures but will take some beating at home, according to former Irish international Rob Kearney.

The Belfast-based side have been drawn against reigning champions La Rochelle and Sale Sharks who will be boosted by the arrival of Premiership-winning fly-half George Ford.

But Ulster, who reached the United Rugby Championship semi-finals and Champions Cup Round of 16 last season, will give their opponents a less than warm welcome to Kingspan Stadium, noted Kearney.

“It’s not an easy group by any means, Ravenhill is a very difficult place to go and win," he said. "The chances are it’s going to be in the depths of winter.

“It’ll probably be rain, wind and all the usual elements that you’d expect from Ireland and Belfast.

“[La Rochelle coach] Ronan O’Gara will have played up there a huge amount of times and he’ll know what a difficult place it is to go. He’ll be very wary of the threat that Ulster pose.”

Former Ireland international O’Gara made 240 appearances for Munster between 1997-2013 and led La Rochelle to Heineken Champions Cup glory last season in his first head coach role.

Kearney believes his experiences of rugby around the world will stand him in good stead for the trip to Belfast.

He said: “He has achieved a huge, huge amount in his short time as a coach and in different parts of the world.

“He obviously spent time down at Crusaders in New Zealand too so he’s had really good exposure to rugby right across the world.

“He’s putting it into practice now with La Rochelle and has had the most successful season that he could possibly have as head coach. I’m sure he’ll want to build on that next year.

But former England international Andy Goode agreed with Kearney’s assessment, commenting that Sale will also do well to get a result at Ravenhill.

He said: “With Ulster, there’s no tougher test really apart from perhaps coming to Leinster. Ulster are a brilliant side there.

“Sale will find it tough but they’re a big physical team that will test two teams that like to throw the ball around a bit in Ulster and Toulouse.”

The 2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup will be the most exciting yet.

With the inclusion of South African clubs, there will be new rivalries between clubs who have never played each other and Kearney is thrilled by their introduction.

“I think it’s brilliant for the competition. I think everyone’s really excited to come and see them finally join this competition.

“Of course, they bring a huge amount of size and power, which is something we know the French do already.

“But having that added dimension of the South African teams doing it too is going to make this a much more difficult competition to win.

“I think for us as supporters and fans that’s ultimately what we want to see. I think it’s fantastic that they’re joining and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they fare.”

European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) is the tournament organiser for the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup, featuring the very best club rugby teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales and – for the first time from the 2022/23 season – South Africa.

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