Ground: Ravenhill (cap: 18,000)
Star Man: Ruan Pienaar
Much like their fellow Irish provinces Ulster Rugby was formed in 1879 when the two competing governing bodies in Ireland merged and formed the Ulster, Leinster and Munster branches, Connacht ever the poor relation was formed in 1900.
Ravenhill was purchased in 1923 by the IRFU with the aim of cementing the concept of a united Ireland side, and was left unchanged for the majority of the next century. Major redevelopment was undertaken in 2008/9 which saw the construction of a new covered terrace with a paddock of premium seating and corporate boxes to the rear. Since our last visit Ravenhill has undergone further changes as both ends have now been built on, the ends are not quite identical as the Memorial End's capacity will be a few hundred people more than the Aquinas End.
Famously Ravenhill has a church within its grounds, between the new Terrace stand and the Memorial End.
As befits a team which won 5 out 6 Pool games last year, as well as topping the RaboDirect Pro 12, Ulster are packed to the gunnels with star names. South African Ruan Pienaar has an Austin Healey-like ability to play both half back positions and as the banners say many a team has been "Ruan-ed" by Pienaar's dead-eye goal kicking. Also in their side are British Lions Tommy Bowe and Rory Best, as well as 2009 tourist Stephen Ferris who has been laid low with injury this past season. Kiwi test prop John Afoa will never take a backward step and is one of the best tightheads currently operating in Europe. Not to mention players like Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Johan Muller.
Montpellier Herault RC
Ground: Stade Yves-du-Manoir (cap 14700)
Star Man: Makmuka Gorgodze
Formed only in 1986 Montpellier Herault Rugby Club is younger than several of its players. However its not as if Rugby only started in the Mediterranean city 27 years ago as the club was formed from the merger of Stade Montepellier, founded 1963, and Montpellier Paillade, founded 1974. The city also has some history of rugby league.
The Stade Yves-du-Manoir, not to be confused with the stadium of the same name in Paris which has hosted the Olmpics, the FIFA World Cup and numerous French internationals and cup finals, was built in 2007 to capitalise on the surge of interest in rugby after the city hosted that year's Rugby World Cup. Its stunningly unique architecture marks it out as one of Europe's premier grounds and certainly is one every fan should try and visit.
The four stands are named after world famous Rugby stadiums: Eden Park, Ellis Park, Murrayfield and Twickenham. As with most French grounds they allow some standing around the pitch on the pessage, some people translate this as terrace but that would be a gross insult to a proper terrace as they usually have no steps and no banking at all.
Montpellier are now funded by scaffolding and cement magnate Mourad Altrad, a Bedouin born in Syria, and have been splashing his considerable cash this summer. Star arrivals are Perpignan and France prop Nicolas Mas, former Tiger Big Jim Hamilton and Tongan-Australian lock Sitaleki Timani. Also arriving are Perpignan's colossal Cameroonian lock Robins Tchale-Watchou, Springbok centre Wynard Oliver and Anthony Floch from Clermont.
They join a squad already sprinkled with stardust. Francois Trinh-Duc, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Julien Tomas are all French internationals raised in the city and products of the clubs youth system. Fijian winger Timoci Nagusa not unlike our own Vereniki Goneva is fleet footed and strong in contact, possessing perhaps a touch more magic. Of course we all know the skills of Lucas Amorosino. Up front their talisman is surely gigantic Georgian Mamuka Gorgodze; his sheer physical presence is epitomised by his nickname "Gorgodzilla". Capable of playing anywhere in the back five of the scrum Gorgodze has helped put Georgian rugby on the map.
Ground:Stadio Comunale di Monigo (6,700)
Star Man: Alessandro Zanni
Founded in 1932 as Associazione Sportiva Rugby Treviso it took them 20 years to finally reach Serie A, the Italian top flight, in 1952 but success was quickly to follow as they won their first championship in 1956 now knwon as Rugby Treviso. Relegated for the only time ten years later they bounced back at the second attempt and have been a fixture of Italian rugby ever since. Their second championship came in 1978, losing only 2 of 26 league games, and this prompted the Benetton group to become involved in the club and a second name change to Benetton Treviso as they have been known ever since. Their original colours of White and Blue were changed to the now familiar green and white of the Benetton group.
Benetton's financial muscle helped Treviso in what were surely the glory days of Italian rugby as they signed worldwide stars such as All Blacks John Kirwin and Craig Green and Australian Michael Lynagh whilst other Italian teams signed players like Naas Botha, Danial Gerber and David Campese. Treviso won the title in 1983, 1989 and Lynagh inspired them to the 1992 title. They also fell short in the final on 6 occasions ('88, '90, '91, '93, '95, '96) before winning 10 titles in the next 14 years.
The Stadio Cumunale di Monigo is a two sided stadium built in 1970. One side is covered with a central section of reserved seats and an inside bar whilst the other is uncovered and entirely unreserved. Given the rain in northern Italy it is no surprise most fans are willing to pay the extra few euros for the cover.
This summer has seen Treviso lose talented centre Tammaso Benvenuti to Perpignan and experienced fly half Kris Burton to Newport. However the squad is still large and talented with the backrow a particualr strength. Toronto born Italian international Bob Barberi, Alessandro Zanni, Manoa Vosawi, Paul Derbyshire (Italian born and raised despite the name), Simone Favaro, Francesco Minto and Dean Budd are an enviable lot to have as your flanking corps.
Scrum half is also a notable strength with all three current Italian national team options of Botes, Gori and Semanzato in the squad. Gori is the youngest and potentially the best, he plays in the breaking style of Ben Youngs and seems to be the preference of the national side whilst Botes is often chosen for Treviso. Botes is fairly versatile and has played fly half and wing.