Make or break, must win, season-defining – all terms which have been used to describe Ulster’s Champions Cup tie with French giants Clermont Auvergne in Belfast this afternoon.
All of that may be touching on overstatement but there’s little doubt that home supporters view success in Europe as particularly important, and recent poor form has unsettled the Kingspan Stadium faithful.
A bonus point win in Cardiff last weekend, the first success in the Pro12 since early October, has certainly lifted the mood in the playing squad, and the return of Ireland skipper Rory Best to the side, and as captain, is another reason for optimism against the Top 14 leaders.
“Rory has had a massive autumn for Ireland, he’s just playing the very best rugby of his career and when he’s around the team everyone gets a boost,” says Director of Rugby Les Kiss.
“He’ll bring an edge to the front row battle, that’s for sure, and if we can get the upper hand in the pack then we are confident of getting the win we need to stay in contention in Pool 5.”
Paddy Jackson also is back from international duty, the out-half’s partnership with Ruan Pienaar definitely one of the tie’s potentially critical areas as they come up against the experienced Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra.
All four players have exceptional kicking games, out-of-hand and from the tee, and any one of the quartet may well decide the outcome.
The sides meet again in the French Alps tomorrow week, and while Clermont has already harvested a maximum of ten points from their outings at Exeter Chiefs and at home to Bordeaux-Begles the pressure is on Ulster in the coming weeks as they battle to be in the shake up for the knockout phase of the competition.
In the absence of Franco van der Merwe, Kiss has drafted Robbie Diack into the second row alongside Pete Brown which certainly brings extra mobility in that department, and Louis Ludik will operate on the wing with internationals Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy still ruled out.
“It’s going to be a very physical game, but we don’t want to get to involved with their big forwards so we’ll be hoping to start hard and fast, move the ball around the pitch and set the tone of the game. You look at the backlines and there is pace everywhere, and there’s also some powerful runners and tacklers, so it’s going to be exciting to watch how it all unfolds,” says Kiss.
Chris Henry makes just his second appearance for Ulster after a six-month injury lay-off, and he is hoping that any rustiness the team showed in Cardiff will have been brushed away after a rigorous week of training and video analysis of the opposition.
“We need to be a bit quicker to the breakdown and secure a few more turnovers, and with Sean Ready and Iain Henderson alongside me in the back-row we are up for this challenge”, said the Irish flanker.
“This is a team of superstars, we know that, but the back-to-back wins over Toulouse last year showed we are able to more than compete at this level and we’re in a really good place as a squad.
“Wesley Fauna at centre is a superb, he is a mercurial player, but in our backline we have Charles Pieta, Stewart McCloskey, Luke Marshall and Tommy Bowe, all guys who’ve played at the top of the sport and they are talented and resilient.”
Clermont coach Franck Abeam named England internationals David Seattle and Nick Abandon on the wings. Noah Nakaitaci doesn’t feature in the 23-man panel, and nor does his fellow French international, prop Thomas Domingo, both possibly being held back for the critical return game in France.
But the hugely influential skipper, blindside Damien Chouly, is included, as is the huge Georgian prop Davit Zirakashvili, but Kiwi No 8 Fritz Lee has been handed a three-week suspension and will miss both matches.
“We have a good record against French club here in Belfast, but that’s in the past and these boys are very much in the present, very focussed, and we think we have 23 top-line players ready to put Ulster right back in play in Europe,” says Kiss.
“The fans deserve a top performance, the side is definitely well-prepared, and hopefully we’ll all be able to enjoy a really good late lunch, and then turn to next week.”
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