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Tigers set for kick-off in 22nd European campaign

Leicester Tigers are preparing for kick-off in the club's 22nd European campaign when they travel to Belfast for a showdown with Ulster Rugby at the Kingspan Stadium this Saturday.

Tigers have featured in Europe's top-flight competition since 1996/97 and lifted the Heineken Cup on two occasions, in 2001 and 2002, playing 150 fixtures since the first on October 16, 1996 against Leinster at Lansdowne Road.

Leicester won 27-10 on that debut appearance and went all the way to the competition's final against Brive at Cardiff Arms Park where they were beaten 28-9 by what is still considered one of club rugby's great teams.

That Tigers team included a young Martin Johnson at lock, a fresh-faced Austin Healey at scrum-half and energetic Richard Cockerill at hooker, alongside Leicester greats such as Rory Underwood, John Liley and Dean Richards.

Many of those who suffered final defeat in January 1997 would go on to lift the Heineken Cup twice a handful of seasons later and create their own history in what is the most-watched club rugby competition in the world.

Leicester remain England's equal most successful side in Europe with two trophies alongside long-time rivals Wasps and the most recent of Premiership victors, Saracens. Meanwhile, Northampton Saints and Bath are the only other English clubs to have held aloft the famous Heineken Cup.

"It's very special, I was very lucky to be part of some successful Tigers sides ... there's some great memories for the players and fans involved."

Geordan Murphy

There are 28 European title wins among the 20 participating teams this year, led by Leinster with five victories, while fellow Irish side Munster are the most experienced club with 166 appearances since their first in the 1995/96 season.

In contrast, French side Lyon compete in their first Champions Cup campaign this season alongside Saracens, Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues in Pool 3.

Tigers open against an Ulster side they have met on eight previous occasions and have never tasted victory at this weekend's venue Kingspan in the four meetings at the Belfast stadium.

One man who will be making his first starting appearance at Kingspan in Leicester colours is George Ford.

The England fly-half previously featured from the bench at the Belfast venue and, after a strong start in the Gallagher Premiership which has seen him score 94 points in six games, he will be out to top his effort last year of 56 points in just four matches in the Champions Cup pool stages.

While Ford will guide the side around the pitch, the man in the coach's chair is no stranger to European rugby.

Geordan Murphy, only five games into his spell as interim head coach, is a two-time European champion as well as being the club's record appearance maker in the tournament (74 games), leading try-scorer with 25 and third on the club's all-time points-scoring tally with 157.

Speaking at this season's tournament launch, Murphy admitted it was "surreal" to see his own name alongside the Head Coach title for a Champions Cup campaign.

"It's a little bit surreal to be honest," Murphy said. "It's very special, I was very lucky to be part of some successful Tigers sides and there's some great memories for the players and fans involved."

While the 2017/18 competition was one that Murphy accepted as disappointing after a fourth-place finish in the pool stages, the Tigers boss was confident the squad would make supporters proud in an equally tough group this season.

"Everyone was disappointed with our performance in Europe last season," he said.

"Ulster away will be difficult first up and then we face Scarlets who play a very entertaining style of rugby, which will make for a tough start, and it gets no easier with back-to-back games against a Racing side that just continue to sign better and better players.

"But while our group this year is very difficult, we will go out and make a good account of ourselves."

Watch an exclusive interview with Murphy at this season's Heineken Champions Cup launch here on LTTV.