Ulster set for European test in Heineken Cup Pool Four
Ulster face a stern examination of their Heineken Cup credentials as they attempt to replicate their passage to the quarter-finals of last year's competition.
First up for the Irish province is a testing home clash against last year's semi-finalists Clermont Auvergne at Ravenhill on Saturday.
That will be followed by a trip to twice former winners Leicester, with back-to-back Pool Four games against Italian side Aironi completing their pre-Christmas schedule.
Captain Johann Muller has confirmed that the importance of the forthcoming matches and the formidable nature of the opposition have been reflected in training this week.
"The intensity of our preparation has definitely increased as European competition is always a massive step up," said the Springbok.
"We enjoyed a bit of success last season and want to repeat or maybe better that this year.
"Big occasions like this are the reason that we play rugby and we are aware how important it is to win your home games in Europe.
"We created a lot of chances against Connacht last week but didn't finish them all because of some bad passes and handling errors.
"We will have fewer opportunities to score against Clermont, so it is important we take them when they come along."
Muller believes recent recruit, All Black John Afoa, has already made "a big impact on and off the field".
"We are looking forward to seeing him in full flight when he has a couple of weeks under his belt," added the South African.
For his part, Afoa explained that he is getting used to life in Belfast and is enjoying playing "a good brand of rugby".
"It was difficult to leave my family again after being away for so long with the All Blacks at the World Cup but I'm confident it will be of benefit to me in the long term and hopefully I can bring some things which will help Ulster to more success."
Ulster's opponents this weekend led the French League until a defeat by Stade Francais last weekend knocked them off top spot.
But despite being one of their nation's big hitters in domestic terms, they will be keen to improve on a record which has seen them make the last eight of the Heineken Cup just once in their last five attempts.
Irish provinces Munster and Leinster have often proved their main stumbling block, having suffered five defeats away to the two Irish provinces in recent seasons.
"Clermont are a bit more of an unknown quantity compared to Stade Francais and Biarritz, both of whom we have faced several times in recent years," reflected hooker Rory Best.
"They have quality French players in their squad and some very good overseas players too, so we are going to have to be at our best.
"Leicester are always in the shake-up at the quarter-final and semi-final stage and Aironi will be no pushover either - you just have to look at how they shocked Biarritz last year.
"We have won our last eight games at home in Europe and that is a record we are very proud of and want to protect.
"It'll be a big challenge on Saturday but the home crowd at Ravenhill always gives us a huge lift, it really does make a massive difference.
"This is the most skilful Ulster team I have played in but we must be prepared get stuck in too, and then hopefully our skill level will help.
"The quarter-finals are the minimum we are expecting this year and we have the quality to do it if we can cut out individual mistakes.
"It was good to be up against the top players in the world at international level and now I'm facing the best players in the world at club level - it's very exciting and there's a great buzz about the place," added Best.
Another Irish international, Andrew Trimble said Clermont are "a team who like to take you on up front".
"They also have the ability to go wide and stretch you too," he warned.