Ulster can’t afford ‘arm wrestle’ with Clermont

“You watch Clermont as we have and you’ve just got to be impressed by what’s on offer, admiring too, and otherwise it might put the fear of God in you.” Ulster’s Director of Rugby Les Kiss was certainly not underestimating the task facing his side when the French Championship leaders come to Kingspan Stadium on Saturday for the third pool game in the Champions Cup.

“They can attack you from anywhere on the park, they have Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez pulling the strings at half-back, and they have a galaxy of top players from which to choose.

“They are absolutely brilliant to watch, and it’s our job, which I think we are very capable of doing, to stop them looking so brilliant, to challenge their skillsets, trust in our own players and, importantly, not to get involved in an arm wrestle,” said Kiss, clearly buoyed by the five-try bonus point win in the Pro12 in Cardiff last Saturday.

“After a month with no game, and needing to get a win on the board it was a good evening’s work in Wales, not perfect, but there were a lot of signs that we were back on track, that we were hungry and anxious to restore our own belief as well as that of the supporters.

“We need to be more disciplined against Clermont, and we have to concentrate for the full 80 minutes, the French will exploit any weakness and picking up two yellow cards as we did against the Blues would be punished far more heavily by the French,” he said. Already without international centre Jared Payne for at least three months Kiss revealed that international wingers Andrew Trimble and Crag Gilroy had “come up just short” in terms of being fit for this weekend.

Stuart Olding, another Irish centre, is also still missing, but he was relatively happy that with Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stewart McCloskey, Louis Ludik, Darren Cave and Jacob Stockdale available, Ulster’s backline would lack neither pace nor firepower.

“Paddy Jackson is back after a fine autumn series with Ireland, and of course Rory Best returns after an enormous campaign, they will be massive for us,” said Kiss, who admits that a European week brings an extra touch of excitement to preparations.

“This is a key game in the pool, and indeed for the competition. Clermont have taken maximum points from two games, scored a lot of points but also conceded a lot, and we need to win at home, and in France next week, to transform the pool and put ourselves firmly in contention for the quarter-finals.

“We have talked about how we were in pretty much the same situation last season when we met Toulouse, back-to-back, and we won both of those matches and came within a whisker of qualification. It’s in our hands, and we’re in good shape physically and mentally.

“We’ve got to be ready to hit the button and play, hard and fast, and I believe that we have the players and the plays to do just that.”

Meanwhile, South African tight-head prop Wiehahn Herbst has signed a two-year extension to his deal with Ulster to stay at Kingspan Stadium until at least 2019. The former Sharks player was recruited from Super Rugby in 2014 but he has been plagued by injury problems and made just 42 appearances in just over two seasons.

“Wiehahn is relatively young for a prop and we fully expect his best days are still ahead of him,” said Kiss.

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