Ulster (26) v Toulouse (20), Kingspan stadium, Saturday, 8.0 – Live on BT Sport
To illustrate the significant challenge that Toulouse pose it is worth dipping into the history of this tete-a-tete as a reference point, not last week’s first leg between the teams in which Ulster prevailed 26-20 in France but their last meeting in Belfast, in December 2020.
The teams met on the opening weekend of last year's Heineken Champions Cup, a tournament that Toulouse would go on to win for a fifth time. On that occasion they beat Ulster 29-22 and it's worth recalling that most of the statistics from that game were stacked nicely in Ulster's favour.
The home side dominated possession (60/40), territory (63/37), won more lineouts, made more clean breaks, had more turnovers and conceded less penalties but still lost; Toulouse outscored their hosts by four tries to three. The good news for Dan McFarland’s side is their two-try, tormentor-in-chief that night, Cheslin Kolbe is no longer part of the rouge et noir playing group.
Ulster will field seven starters from that game, Toulouse eight but perhaps what’s most relevant is a reminder that Toulouse don’t need a great deal of possession to damage opponents on the scoreboard. Despite the early loss of Argentine wing Juan Cruz Mallia to a red card, they almost managed an improbable rescue act.
Even in defeat Romain Ntamack’s late converted try has ensured that the French club remain within touching distance of Ulster coattails. The teams are in a contrasting position personnel wise for this match with McFarland making two alterations to his starting team.
Ethan McIlroy replaces Ben Moxham, the victim of Mallia's rash challenge last weekend, while Andy Warwick swaps the bench for a starting role with Eric O'Sullivan headed in the opposite direction. Nick Timoney, who has been in brilliant form this season, is sure to get a warm ovation on his 100th cap, an occasion he'd like to celebrate with a victory.
Toulouse head coach Ugo Mola has had a much more fraught week in trying to husband his resources. Good news came in the form that captain and scrumhalf, Antoine Dupont, who didn't train in the early part of the week has recovered to take his place, so too former Connacht centre Pita Ahki, also initially struggling with injury.
Mola has made six changes to the starting side. The suspended Mallia is replaced by Dimitri Delibes on the right wing with Tim Nanai-Williams coming in for Zack Holmes in the centre.
Former All Black prop Charlie Faumuina starts in place of French international Dorian Aldegheri, Richie Arnold joins his brother Rory in the secondrow while Anthony Jelonch and Selevasio Tolofua are promoted to the starting backrow. There is a six-two split on the bench in favour of forwards.
French internationals Sofiane Guitoune, Cyril Baille and François Cros, all of whom played last week aren’t in the matchday 23, nor French hooker Julien Marchand (calf), another notable absentee.
Mola wasn’t overly enamoured with the injury tariff arising from France’s Grand Slam with Toulouse as bulk suppliers to the national team.
He said: “Of the 10 internationals who finished with the Grand Slam seven were affected by injuries directly or indirectly due to the Six Nations. I did not have the luxury due to the poor results whilst they were otherwise occupied to rest them when they returned. I would have preferred to have given them the time to reboot batteries.”
“It was different from last year when we were able to give them some breathing space. Sadly, this year it is not the case. Each time I look at the schedule I ask myself how we are going to get to the end?”
There won’t be much sympathy across the corridor in the home dressingroom as Ulster have enough to preoccupy them. The line speed in defence must be less passive and hesitant, the lineout must improve, and they’ll have to better manage the collisions and rucks. Referee Mathew Carley likes a clean breakdown.
Robert Baloucoune's hat-trick last week underlined his talent and along with James Hume and Michael Lowry, should be the focal point of Ulster's attack. If the home side sits back, they won't win; they must have the courage to go after Toulouse from first to last whistle. If they do that then they'll go through.
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, M Moore; I Henderson (capt), A O'Connor; Marcus Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: B Roberts, E O'Sullivan, T O'Toole, K Treadwell, J Murphy, N Doak, L Marshall, R Lyttle.
TOULOUSE: T Ramos; D Delibes, T Nanai-Williams, P Ahki, M Lebel; R Ntamack, A Dupont (capt); R Neti, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina; Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold; R Elstadt, A Jelonch, S Tolofua.
Replacements: G Cramont, D Ainu'u, D Aldegheri, E Meafou, T Flament, A Miquel, B Germain, L Tauzin.
Referee: M Carley (England).