Ulster braced for Clermont power surge but still unlikely to resist it

French league leaders will greet visitor’s pack with ruthless welcome party

European Champions Cup Pool Five

ASM Clermont Auvergne v Ulster

Stade Marcel Michelin

Sunday, 3.05pm, Live Sky Sports 4


The round-three meeting, and Ulster’s 39-32 victory, is highly recommended viewing but in the context of the return leg only watch the last 20 minutes. When Clermont woke up. Also when Clermont began to exact revenge on real or imagined slights.

The physicality here will reach angry All Black standards.

Last weekend two of European club rugby's magicians, Charles Piutau and Wesley Fofana, were in full flight to offset the bruising war up front. This time, all the Top 14 leaders will seek to do is overpower Les Kiss's forward pack.

Franco van der Merwe returns for the injured Robbie Diack, so one South African for the other, but it is the Irish trio of Rory Best, Chris Henry and especially Iain Henderson that Damien Chouly and pals will target for special treatment.

In the case of Best and Henry, that’s only because they will leave themselves exposed for punishment at countless rucks. With Henderson, well, he will do what he does best and carry into them.

There will be a welcoming party with the noise of the club’s band reacting in tandem.

Surprise result

A surprise result is not inconceivable but as Leinster already proved in the face of an enormous Montpellier pack in October, a bonus-point loss will feel like a victory further down the road.

Ulster, on nine points from three rounds, need something after making a mess of a very winnable trip to Bordeaux.

With Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson both outstanding last weekend – with the outhalf getting a wonderful individual try – there is enough evidence to believe in a positive Ulster result.

Logic though insists on Clermont’s irresistible power surge delivering at least three tries.

Then it becomes a numbers game. If the Ulster players start going down, and not getting back up, then it will prove almost impossible to stay within seven points.

Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble, victims of Ireland's November campaign, are not unduly missed as Tommy Bowe is back on deck, while Stuart McCloskey is developing into a valuable club centre.

Don’t forget Piutau. With the All Black on the pitch, anything must seem possible to Ulster supporters. Anything, while unlikely, includes victory in the toughest place to escape with a result in Europe.

ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: Isaiah Toeava; Noa Nakaitaci, Remi Lamerat, Wesley Fofana, Nick Abendanon; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Etienne Falgoux, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili; Arthur Iturria, Sébastien Vahaamahina; Viktor Kolelishvili, Alexandre Lapandry, Damien Chouly (capt). Replacements: John Ulugia, Thomas Domingo, Mickael Simutoga, Flip Van Der Merwe, Peceli Yato, Ludovic Radosavljevic, Pato Fernandez, Aurélien Rougerie.

ULSTER RUGBY: Charles Piutau; Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Kyle McCall, Rory Best (capt), Wiehahn Herbst; Pete Browne, Franco van der Merwe; Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy. Replacements: Rob Herring, Andy Warwick, Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Jacob Stockdale.

Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).

Betting: Clermont 10/11 (-10 points).

Forecast: Clermont win.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent