Champions Cup Pool A: Clermont Auvergne v Ulster, Stade Marcel Michelin, Saturday, 5.30pm Irish time – Live on BT Sport
The coronavirus pandemic has insinuated its way into all forms of life and rugby is no exception as the Clermont Auvergne staff and players discovered during the week ahead of their opening Heineken Champions Cup tie against familiar rivals in Ulster.
The local La Montagne newspaper offered a pretty comprehensive background to Covid-19 issues that have denied the French Top 14 club several marquee names. Flanker Judicaël Cancoriet returned a positive test and outhalf Camille Lopez, as a close contact, was therefore unavailable for selection.
La Montagne reported that Japanese star fullback Kotaro Matsushima and former All Black centre George Moala “who by personal choice did not wish to be vaccinated” were therefore ruled out of contention. Former French scrumhalf Morgan Parra and Fijian centre Apisai Naqalevu are also not in the matchday 23.
It means a root and branch reshuffle for the backline. Scrumhalf Kevin Villiard will make his European debut, forming a brand new halfback partnership with JJ Hanrahan, who signed for the French club from Munster during the summer.
The Kerryman, a try scorer as a replacement last week, has started three of the club’s last five matches. There is also a fledgling centre partnership as 30-year-old utility back Jean-Pascal Barraque partners 21-year-old Tani Vili; they have only played together once previously as a pair in the midfield.
Damian Penaud reverts to his more natural position of wing having played in the centre last week while Fijian-born French international Alvereti Raka is on the other wing, the two providing the home side with razor-sharp edges.
Alexandre Fischer (concussion), Paul Jedrasiak (selection) and Sebastien Vahaamahina are absent from the pack and this means that Jacobus van Tonder will play in the secondrow for the first time since 2019. Fiji's Pecali Yato, Samoan-born Fritz Lee and French international and captain Arthur Iturria form an athletic, ball-playing backrow.
Ulster give a debut to World Cup-winning Springbok number eight Duane Vermeulen, whose presence will greatly add to the team’s ball-carrying ballast, quite apart from the fact that he is an outstanding player in general terms.
Iain Henderson is still sidelined, while Bradley Roberts (ankle), Tom Stewart (foot) and Marty Moore (concussion) all picked up their issues in last week’s defeat to the Ospreys and were unavailable for selection. Moore’s absence places a focus on young tighthead prop Tom O’Toole and his capacity to help lock down the scrum.
O’Toole brings many qualities in terms of general play but it is his work in the tight that will come under fierce scrutiny here. It’s certainly not his task alone but any primacy in the set piece and at the breakdown will have a major influence on the outcome.
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has opted for a six-two split on the bench. Nick Timoney and Marcus Rea are very good over the ball, so too Rob Herring and the presence of two more backrow forwards in Greg Jones and Sean Reidy on the bench suggests that Ulster will go operate the twin tracks of turnovers and slowing Clermont possession. The visitors need to stand firm up front and if they can do that, possess the backline to deliver on a decent platform.
Ulster have met Clermont in four pool matches over the last three seasons with the home side winning on each occasion. McFarland recalled of the last meeting in France, a 29-13 defeat for his side: “We did a lot of good [things] that day, we kept them out of our area for a long period and they scored right at the end of the game as well.
“We had a couple of moments in and around half-time that put us on the back foot. We scored a great try early to go 10-3 up. They are a great team with superstar players who are able to make superstar plays. Playing in that environment [at Stade Marcel Michelin] is fantastic but the challenge is huge.”
If Ulster can reproduce the hard-nosed intensity and aggression of their recent win over Leinster without sacrificing the commitment to attacking with ball in hand this match is eminently winnable given the composition of the respective teams.
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: Cheik Tiberghien; Damian Penaud, Jean-Pascal Barraque, Tani Vili, Alivereti Raka; JJ Hanrahan, Kevin Viallard; Peni Ravai, Yohan Beheregaray, Rabah Slimani; Jacobus van Tonder, Sébastien Vahaamahina; Arthur Iturria (capt), Peceli Yato, Fritz Lee.
Replacements: Benjamin Boudou, Etienne Falgoux, Cristian Ojovan, Thibaud Lanen, Lucas Dessaigne, Sébastien Bézy, Gabin Michet, Marvin O'Connor.
ULSTER: Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O'Toole; Alan O'Connor (capt), Kieran Treadwell; Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: John Andrew, Jack McGrath, Ross Kane, Sam Carter, Greg Jones, Sean Reidy, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).