Confident Ulster braced for their stiffest test to date
Clermont in atmospheric Stade Marcel Michelin a tough assignment for any side
Billy Burns: will be looking to impress the Ireland coaching team when Ulster face Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel Michelin. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Clermont Auvergne v Ulster, Saturday, Stade Marcel Michelin, 2.0pm local time/1.0pm Irish time - Live on BT Sport
Ulster’s resilience, the ability to eke out narrow one-point victories over Bath (away) and Harlequins (home) has been pivotal in negotiating an unbeaten passage to the penultimate round of pool fixtures in this season’s Champions Cup. But that character trait faces its stiffest examination to date at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
When the teams met in Belfast Dan McFarland’s team were more dominant for the most part than the 18-13 scoreline suggests but the lessons of that night will have to have been absorbed. Ulster squandered a couple of excellent try -scoring chances that left the outcome very much in the balance and also allowed the French side to return home with a losing bonus point.
Discipline was a significant Achilles heel on the night in question; Ulster conceded 15 penalties in total and 11 in the second half, the sort of figures that generally prove fatal. There were also a couple of moments when grubber kicks in behind the Ulster defence could have yielded a couple of tries for Fijian-born, French international wing Alivereti Raka; the ball bouncing kindly from an Ulster perspective.
McFarland has made two changes from that game, Robert Baloucoune replacing Louis Ludik on the right wing and a fit-again Jack McGrath back at loosehead prop. Another problematic facet of the game for the Irish province was the scrum, particularly in the second half, and they eventually conceded a penalty try.
McGrath’s presence should improve the situation although he is up against Rabah Slimani, who usually polarises opinion when it comes to his angles in the scrum; he gets or gives away penalties. On that note Nigel Owens, who was to referee, is ill and has been replaced by England’s Matthew Carley.
Clermont coach Frank Azema has made four changes to the team that lost in Belfast. The gifted Damian Penaud is on the right wing instead of Peter Betham, Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra start at halfback, while Sebastien Vahaamahina and Alex Lapandry bolster the pack; all five are or were French internationals.
The Stade Marcel Michelin is wonderfully atmospheric, deafening when the home side are in their pomp, and Azema spoke during the week about making sure that the volume dial is turned all the way up. To do so, Clermont will have to shrug off the fitful nature of their performances that has seen them lose six of 13 matches in the French Top 14.
Former All Black George Moala has been a standout player in a three-quarter line that could wreak havoc given the platform of quick ball. That onus will fall on the Clermont pack, one that possesses bulk, power and in Arthur Iturria and Lapandry, superb athletes, who add value in the wider channels.
Ulster have already proven this season that they have the courage to attack from deep and with width and they’ll need to retain that belief in France. The return of the outstanding Marcell Coetzee and Jordi Murphy provides key ball-carrying ballast. Alan O’Connor has been immense for his team this season. The set piece will be vital, Clermont’s scrum and lineout is effective in attack or defence.
While it will be irrelevant for the 80 minutes, this game will serve as a benchmarking process of sorts for the new Ireland coach Andy Farrell as he scrutinises the performances of several individuals with a view to the upcoming Six Nations Championship.
Will Addison has been superb, Stuart McCloskey is in the form of his career, Jacob Stockdale scored his first try for Ulster in a year last weekend, while John Cooney, whose brilliant individual try in the first meeting of the teams this season in Belfast was effectively the difference, will undoubtedly come under more pressure; especially if the Clermont pack gets on top. How he manages in those circumstances will be instructive.
Billy Burns was named in the extended Ireland 45-man squad and, given the injury concerns at outhalf, how he fares and his ability to manage the game will prove an interesting aside. The same applies to the pack, McGrath, Rob Herring, captain, Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy, from a national team perspective, all looking to impress in a hostile environment.
They key for Ulster is to be in touch on the scoreboard after 60 minutes and then draw from the confidence that has seen them prevail in those tight matches. It’s a tall order, not beyond them, but Clermont might just have that little bit too much, individually and collectively.
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: N Abendanon; D Penaud, I Toeava, G Moala, A Raka; C Lopez, M Parra (capt); E Falgoux, J Ulugia, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, S Vahaamahina; A Iturria, A Lapandry, F Lee.
Replacements: Y Beheregaray, L Uhila, S Falatea, S Timani, A Fischer, G Laidlaw, J McIntyre, A Naqalevu.
Referee: M Carley (England)
Odds: Clermont Auvergne 3/10, draw 19/1, Ulster 11/4. Handicap: Clermont (-8) 10/11, draw 22/1, Ulster (+8) 10/11
Verdict: Clermont Auvergne to win