Misfiring Ulster facing a torrid time in Toulouse
Formidable pack and outstanding backline ensure French aristocrats hold all the aces
John Cooney: scrumhalf returns to the Ulster starting line-up as one of four changes to the side that played Leinster in the Pro14 final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It was impossible to tell from the laid-back Toulouse centre Pita Ahki earlier in the week just how convinced he was about his side’s chances against Ulster. Most people cannot see Dan McFarland’s team doing to the French club what they could not do to Leinster last week in the Pro14 league final.
However, while the four-time winners topped Pool 5 with 27 points to secure their home tie, they have returned to domestic action in France with mixed fortunes, a 33-30 loss at Clermont Auvergne and a 39-23 home win over La Rochelle last weekend.
“To be fair, we’ve been a bit shaky in the first half of games,” said the New Zealand 27-year-old, who played with Connacht eight times in 2017-18 season.
“We are still trying to find our feet a bit, but this quarter-final was always in our minds and we will be ready for Sunday.”
The only advantage Ulster may hold when they arrive in Stade Ernest-Wallon, where there will be a 5,000 crowd, is they have played two more matches since the resumption and are probably more used to the change in breakdown interpretations, which referee Wayne Barnes will enthusiastically police. That and match sharpness will provide some edge for Ulster but that’s where it ends.
While scrumhalf, John Cooney, returns to the Ulster starting line-up as one of four changes to the side that played Leinster, flanker Marcel Coetzee is not involved. That’s a significant loss for Ulster, although from what McFarland was saying on Monday he never seemed likely to get over niggling injuries that had hampered him last week too.
Ian Madigan is not involved at all as McFarland goes for a 6-2 split on the bench with Alby Mathewson and Matt Faddes covering the back options. That seems a well-reasoned decision given the size of the Toulouse pack and what the Ulster forwards will expect to face in the scrum.
Former All Black and team captain Jerome Kaino is part of the crushing Toulouse backrow with Selevasio Tolofua and Francois Cros not to mention bruiser prop Charlie Faumuina. But it is the Toulouse firepower in their backline that poses X-factor danger from all areas.
Halfbacks for France and Toulouse, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, are the creative forces in the Toulouse larder and behind them are fullback Thomas Ramos, Johan Huget on one flank and the flier Cheslin Kolbe on the other. It’s a kind of fantasy selection.
It was the French teams runners that McFarland pointed to as super dangerous and the fear for his side is if they have any opportunities at all to get in behind the Ulster defence. That will spell trouble. Kolbe, the undisputed pound for pound fastest man in rugby just needs a step and defenders are grasping air. His skill and natural instinct place him among the world’s top attacking players.
The overall Toulouse package is power in the pack, power in the backs and speed too with the nerve centre of Dupont and Ntamack freewheeling and encouraged to be creative.
Michael Lowry is named as Ulster fullback, with Jacob Stockdale and Rob Lyttle on the wings and in the centre Stuart McCloskey and James Hume, who scored a fine try last week, will again start.
In the front row, Jack McGrath comes in at loosehead to join Rob Herring at hooker and Tom O’Toole with Iain Henderson captaining the side alongside Alan O’Connor in the second row. Sean Reidy switches to the blindside with Jordi Murphy and number 8 Nick Timoney comes in to the starting line-up .
There would be a better feeling if Ulster had arrived playing well. That hasn’t happened. They can expect a torrid time.
TOULOUSE: T Ramos; Y Huget, S Guitoune, P Ahki, C Kobe; R Ntamack, R Dupont; C Baille, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina, R Arnold, I Tekori, J Kaino (c), F Cros, S Tolofua. Replacements: J Marchand, R Neti, D Aldegheri, E Meafou, A Placines, Z Holmes, A Bales, M Lebel
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Lyttle, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; JMcGrath, R Herring, T O’Toole, A O’Connor, I Henderson (Capt.), S Reidy, J Murphy, N Timoney. Replacements: J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, M Moore, S Carter, K Treadwell, A Mathewson, M Faddes, Matthew Rea.
Referee: W Barnes (RFU)
Betting: Handicap - Toulouse (-13), Draw (-13), Ulster (+13). Match odds - Ulster 4-1, Toulouse 1-6, Draw 25-1