Live-wire Ireland cap Stuart Olding is promoted from the bench as Ulster head coach Neil Doak makes two changes to the side facing all-conquering Toulon at the Kingspan Stadium this afternoon.
Olding replaces the burly Stuart McCloskey at inside centre while Roger Wilson comes in for Nick Williams at number eight to, hopefully, prevent Toulon’s powerhouse Steffan Armitage from causing maximum damage at the breakdown.
Leading the side again will be Ireland’s most-capped hooker Rory Best, making his 50th European appearance after making his debut against Gloucester back in 2005.
It is a win or bust game for Ulster after losing 25-18 away to Leicester last week, even though they garnered a bonus point in one of the most difficult groupings in the new Champions Cup competition.
Olding, meanwhile, knows that while Toulon have such brilliant off-the-cuff runners that can attack from anywhere around the park, he still believes Ulster’s discipline could be a key for a famous victory.
The 23-year-old utility back is worried if Ulster fall foul of the referee, then Lions star Leigh Halfpenny could boot them out of the competition. The Welsh international full-back has amassed 251 points in Europe so far on top of 395 for Wales and after a spell on the sidelines with injury, is bang on form again.
“He is a world class kicker, if not the best kicker in the world at the minute,” said Olding, who is in Ireland’s panel for the autumn Tests. “He’ll kick them from anywhere, so discipline will be key. We just have to do things by the book and try to get the referee on our side,” said Olding aware, of course, Ulster have achieved great results against big French teams.
“You want to test yourself against the best in Europe and we have a chance to do that this year. I can’t wait for the atmosphere; it will be a packed house, we need the crowd behind us and they always give us a huge buzz on big occasions. Saracens last year was an unbelievable atmosphere, the crowd got behind us and that gives you a buzz on the pitch worth a few points,” explained Olding, who knows defeat would virtually rule them out of progressing from Pool 3.
“Losing two games doesn’t put you in a great position. You’re not out of it but it’d be tough to get through, so it is a massive game, having the two-time champions here in Belfast,” said Olding who expects Toulon to play typical free-flowing rugby.
“French teams like to play with flair, and especially Toulon. I watched their game at the weekend and they had a go from anywhere. They had two or three rucks under their own posts and they didn’t panic and got out of there, so we’re expecting an expansive game from them.”
“It’s going to be tough against top class internationals like that but I think with the quality we have in the back line, we can match them.”
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is a big fan of Olding’s individual flair. It’s a bonus for the Belfast boy who missed most of last season due to knee surgery and is back bigger and stronger than ever.
“This is where I want to be and this is where I have wanted to be my whole life, playing top-class rugby against the best players and teams in the world. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than Ulster.”
Olding knows Ulster will have to concentrate for the whole game and not fall asleep as they did when Leicester put 19 points on board in 30 minutes last week.
“I think maybe we relaxed a bit after a great start over there, we took our foot of the gas then Leicester really turned it on.”
Toulon have all the usual world-class suspects on show with internationals from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, Argentina and England in the mix. They can even afford to keep Springbok lock Bakkies Botha and All Black veteran Ali Williams on the bench.
- Today’s clash at Kingspan Stadium will be the first time the two clubs have met in European competition.
- Ulster have won six of their last seven games against French opposition, and 11 of their last 13 home games against French clubs in Europe’s top flight.
- Toulon have played Irish opposition just four times in the competition, winning the last three, however their one loss to an Irish club was their record defeat in Europe — 18-45 v Munster.
- Ulster could break the 2,500 points mark in Europe this weekend against Toulon; they currently sit on 2,491 points.
- All five of Toulon’s defeats in this tournament have come away from home.
- Ulster lost their last home game in this competition (2013/14 quarter-final v Saracens) — they’ve not lost two in a row on home turf since 2007/08.
- Tommy Bowe scored his 25th try in the tournament last weekend, and is sixth on the all-time top try scorers list.
- Ulster have won 16 of their last 17 home pool stage games.
- Last weekend, Ulster lost their opening European fixture for the first time since the 2008/09 season.
- Ulster have now lost two consecutive games in Europe for the first time since 2008/09.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved