Ulster hitting form at ideal time, says Malone

“We have some star players in really good form at the moment, Charles Piutau and Ruan Pienaar were outstanding last week, so I think they’ll have a lot to think about on Saturday.”

Ulster Skills Coach Niall Malone is relishing the visit of Clermont Auvergne to Belfast at lunchtime tomorrow and believes that back-to-back Champions Cup games with the leaders of the French Championship could hardly have come a better time.

“They are a very, very good side, but two wins in the last four games is not what they, or we, would see as success, so this could be the ideal time to meet them, and with two games in eight days against the same opponents, it does mean that the players have been able to prepare for the various threats Clermont pose.

“For me this has been such interesting week, examining their style and working out ways which we think we can beat them, and believe me we do think we can do just that, not just at home but in France on Sunday week,” said Malone, the former Ireland out-half who’s in line to be handed an enhanced coaching role when defence specialist Joe Barakat leaves later this month to take up a senior position at Western Force in his native Australia.

“To qualify for the knockout phase we have to win five matches in my opinion. We’ve lost one already, so it’s pretty clear that this week is a ‘must win’ game. A European week has its own special ‘vibe’ and we’ve all been feeding off that, and we know that we have to be at our very best, and that Pro12 win in Cardiff has given us something solid to build on.”

This week has seen the players concentrate on the tackle and on the support to the tackler. “Like the other French side on our pool, Bordeaux-Begles, Clermont like to carry the ball into contact and then offload, and they do it better.

“One of their strengths is that both forwards and backs are very physical, very mobile, and its players like Piutau, Stewart McCloskey, and Luke Marshall who’ll have a lot of work to do in defence as well as impose themselves as an attacking force,” said Malone.

He regards the return from international duty of out-half Paddy Jackson and hooker Rory Best as very important, and though disappointed that a serious kidney injury suffered against Australia denies the Ulster backline of Jared Payne’s steadying intelligence Malone says the strength in depth at Kingspan will make up for the loss of the centre.

Of the make-up of the French side he admits that all opposition, in whatever competition, is examined closely and a best guess at the formation and personnel does play a part in preparations.

“Clermont made a lot of changes for their high-scoring defeat at Pau last weekend, but interestingly the same line-up has taken the field in each of its first two Champions Cup games, and that may be a bit of a guide to who we face.

“Wesley Fofana, an obvious one to watch in midfield, did pick up a knock with France, and he may not feature, but we know they have dangerous, gifted players in every position, but we’re ready for whatever fifteen takes to the pitch.

“Last year our season was turned around by the back-to-back defeats of Toulouse, who at that point — like Clermont now — were racing ahead in the Top 14, and we delivered two outstanding and disciplined performances to win home and away, so we have ‘form’, if you like,” sais Malone.

“They score a lot of points, but they also concede a lot, with two 30-30 draws already this season. It’s not our plan for them to get the upper hand this weekend, we’re very confident, and in our own Kingspan Stadium we’ll have the support on which the players thrive.”


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