In-form Ulster to stick with attacking game plan for Clermont clash

Win would give province home advantage as Champions Cup unfurls towards its final

Ulster’s Michael Lowry was key in the province’s win over Northampton Saints. Photograph:  David Davies/PA Wire

Ulster’s Michael Lowry was key in the province’s win over Northampton Saints. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire

 

Ulster v Clermont Auvergne, Kingspan stadium, Saturday, 5.30 - Live on BT Sport

Ulster’s performance in their victory over the Northampton Saints was as appealing in content as it was in terms of the result that guaranteed them a place in the Champions Cup Round of 16 next April.

This evening in Belfast, Ulster head coach Dan McFarland and his charges will be looking for a win to provide the Irish province with the highest possible seeding, one that will have ramifications for home advantage as the tournament unfurls towards a final in Marseilles.

The Irish province will look to borrow heavily from the game plan that proved so effective against the Saints, the fluency, that width, pace and variety in attack that characterised their most productive moments at Franklin’s Gardens, facilitated in no small part by a platform established up front.

Ireland squad members Michael Lowry and Robert Baloucoune were especially prominent, individual moments of high quality proving pivotal to the outcome, abetted by a three quarter line offered subtlety in breaching the Saints’ defence.

Stewart Moore used intelligence and footwork to cause havoc and it is a pity that the young centre suffered a knee injury that rules him out of this match. In the continued absence of Stuart McCloskey, Angus Curtis is next in line to don the number 12 jersey.

Ridiculously unfortunate

A son of the Zimbabwean-born former Irish international Dave, he has been ridiculously unfortunate with injury, particularly a knee issue that kept him sidelined from December 2019 to May 2021. Although small in stature, he is a tough cookie and an excellent playmaker as befits someone who can also play outhalf.

The other change to the starting team from the Saints match is in the frontrow where Eric O’Sullivan replaces Andrew Warwick (concussion). Jack McGrath is back from injury to take his place on the bench. Hooker Bradley Roberts has recovered from injury and is named among the replacements while Craig Gilroy replaces Ian Madigan in the matchday 23.

Clermont’s director of rugby and former Ulster coach Jono Gibbes has made 10 changes to the team that beat the Sale Sharks at home last weekend with seven of the bench promoted to the starting team. The French side can still qualify for the knockout stage of the tournament.

Wings Marvin O’Connor and Alivereti Raka, secondrow Tomás Lavanini and backrow forwards Judicael Cancoriet and Jacobus van Tonder are the players retained from the Sale match.

Former Munster outhalf JJ Hanrahan, who has been linked with a move to the Dragons in the summer, is named at outhalf, alongside veteran scrumhalf Morgan Parra whose two second-half penalties were pivotal last week.

The fact that Sébastien Vahaamahina, Fritz Lee and especially Damian Penaud are named among the replacements is puzzling. There’s little doubt that Clermont will go after the home side in the set piece, albeit allowing for the fact that tighthead Rabah Slimani polarises opinion among referees with the way he scrums.

McFarland will be hoping that the yoyo nature of recent performances is consigned to the past and that his charges are able to back up last week’s quality. If they do so then they are likely to celebrate a fourth successive victory in capping an excellent campaign through the pool stages.

ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, A Curtis, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell; M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.

Replacements: B Roberts, J McGrath, T O’Toole, S Carter, G Jones, D Shanahan, B Moxham, C Gilroy.

CLERMONT AUVERGNE: C Tiberghien; M O’Connor, J-P Barraque, T Vili, A Raka; JJ Hanrahan, M Parra; E Falgoux, Y Beheregaray, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, T Lavanini; J Cancoriet (capt), L Dessaigne, J van Tonder.

Replacements: E Fourcade, D Bibi Biziwu, C Ojovan, S Vahaamahina, F Lee, K Viallard, C Lopez, D Penaud.

Referee: L Pearce (England).

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