TOBY FLOOD says there is “a burning desire” for English heavyweights Leicester to re-establish themselves as kings of Europe.
It is 11 years since Leicester lifted the Heineken Cup, when victory over Munster in Cardiff saw them retain a title they won against all odds by defeating Parisians Stade Francais on home soil the previous season.
But the Tigers could hardly have been handed a tougher opener tonight in what could well be the final Heineken Cup in its current format following plans for an Anglo-French breakaway and launch of a new Rugby Champions Cup.
Leicester head to Belfast and a pool five appointment with Ulster. Their two previous visits in 2003 and 2012 produced 33-0 and 41-7 defeats, respectively. “We’ve had two very bad nights at Ravenhill down the years,” Tigers captain Flood said. “I didn’t go to Belfast two seasons ago, but it was very disappointing. They played very well and we were poor. We can’t afford for that to happen again.
“There is certainly a burning desire within the squad to reach the final again. It has been a frustrating 11 years waiting to bring the Heineken Cup back to Welford Road after those back-to-back triumphs in 2001 and 2002. Last year we had to go to Toulon in the quarter-finals, but we all felt we could have come away with a result there. We are a club that is capable of winning on the road in the big games.
“Games in this tournament don’t come much harder than having to face Ulster at Ravenhill on a Friday night and we know it is going to be a difficult start. It is as hard a place to go as any in Europe.”
Tigers rugby director Richard Cockerill gives a debut to former Worcester wing Miles Benjamin, who joined Leicester more than a year ago but then suffered a serious neck injury.
Elsewhere, Dan Bowden lines up in midfield alongside Vereniki Goneva with Anthony Allen absent due to an ankle injury, and England lock Geoff Parling has been declared fully fit, meaning he partners Louis Deacon in the second-row. Ireland wing Tommy Bowe returns for Ulster after recovering from a leg injury, while Jared Payne switches to full-back instead of Craig Gilroy.
One change in the pack sees Roger Wilson featuring at blindside flanker and South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar is named among the replacements. Pienaar signed a three-year contract extension with Ulster earlier this week.
Aviva Premiership leaders Saracens also face a Friday night opener, meeting pool three hosts Connacht in Galway, where the Irish province’s Heineken scalps include Harlequins and Biarritz.
Saracens’ rugby director Mark McCall makes six changes up front following the Wasps game, with Steve Borthwick, Schalk Brits and Billy Vunipola among those returning, while Owen Farrell is back at fly-half and Alex Goode reverts to his familiar full-back position.
Four-time European champions Toulouse have been drawn in the same pool as Saracens and Connacht, but should encounter few problems collecting a bonus point against Italian team Zebre, the 24-team tournament’s weakest side.
Toulouse’s enviable squad strength is again underlined by the fact that star players such as Thierry Dusautoir, Louis Picamoles, Patricio Albacete and Hosea Gear are all on the bench.