Ulster hoping to finally end French resistance

THIS was meant to be the game that topped the bill this weekend: a revitalised Ulster side against one of the French powerhouses with both sides gunning for the win required to take them through to the next round and leave the other scratching for a slot in the Amlin Challenge.

Events in Galway and Gloucester last night changed all that, however. Ulster’s place in the last eight is now confirmed but Brian McLaughlin’s side will still be seeking a first win in France and a home quarter-final venue to boot.

“This weekend is all about clearing the next hurdle in our progression,” said attack coach Neil Doak earlier yesterday.

“It was great to reach the quarter-finals last year and be highly competitive against Northampton Saints, but the game in Clermont is much bigger than last year’s quarter-final.” Ulster were electric in dismissing Leicester last week but this isn’t Ravenhill and Clermont are a sight better than the Tigers, especially on home soil where, as we all know by now, they have won 38 games on the bounce.

The Irish province impressed in pretty much every department last Friday but they have been weakened at centre with Ian Whitten replacing the injured Darren Cave and Clermont may well target the youngster as well as Paddy Wallace and Ian Humphries.

Vern Cotter has as expected made wholesale changes – 10 to be precise — to the side which racked up 82 points against Aironi in Italy in round five with their back three and second row looking particularly strong in a XV with few weak points.

David Skrela starts at ten with Brock James on the bench and the hosts can call on a roll-call of reserves including prop Vincent Debaty, back row Alexandre Lapandry and the two former All-Blacks, scrum-half Kevin Senio and centre Regan King, respectively.

Ulster will be confident of matching their opponents at the breakdown and setpiece but they simply do not possess the same depth and that second wave could engulf them and leave them facing another away day next April.

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