Ulster need to be at their best to contain Clermont threat
The French side ooze quality but Ulster have had their measure before in Belfast
Marcell Coetzee: his performance against Bath exemplified his quality and importance to Ulster. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Kick-off: 7.45pm, Friday. Venue: Kingspan Stadium. On TV: Live on BT Sport 2.
Times and dates may change, personnel too, but there are inevitably parallels to be drawn from history that resonate between past and present, something Ulster will be aware of as they look to emulate the achievement of their predecessors when the clubs last met in a Heineken Champions Cup pool match in December, 2016.
On that occasion Clermont Auvergne travelled to Belfast only to be thwarted 39-32 in a wonderfully entertaining tussle that featured nine tries. The French side returned home with the consolation of a couple of bonus points, clambering back from 39-18 down with two late, converted tries.
Nine of Ulster’s match-day 23 for tonight’s game were involved three years ago, seven for the visitors, highlighting a level of familiarity.
Sticking with the numbers’ game, Ulster coach Dan McFarland has been forced to make four changes, three because of injuries to Jack McGrath (thumb), Sam Carter (shoulder) and Rob Lyttle (leg). Prop Eric O’Sullivan, secondrow Alan O’Connor and wing Louis Ludik are all promoted to the starting team.
There is a fourth alteration to the side that beat Bath 17-16 at the Rec with Irish international Seán Reidy replacing Matty Rea in the back row. As a nod to history, three years ago Ulster took to the pitch without a host of front-line players including including Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Stuart Olding, Franco van der Merwe, Alan O’Connor and Roger Wilson and still managed to win.
Clermont show three changes to the side that scored seven tries in a thumping 53-21 win over Harlequins at the Stade Marcel Michelin last weekend. French international halfbacks Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez drop to the bench and are replaced by Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw and Australian Jake McIntyre.
A graphic illustration of the depth of Clermont’s playing roster can be gleaned from the fact that Wesley Fofana, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Alexandre Lapandry, Tim Nanai-Williams and Damian Penaud miss out through injury and suspension.
The visitors still possess an impressive amalgam of power, bulk, athleticism and pace nicely distributed between forwards and backs. Clermont’s back three, England’s Nick Abendanon, Wallaby Peter Bethan and in particular Fijian-born, French international wing Alivereti Raka provide Clermont with a razor-sharp cutting edge in attack.
Centres Isaiah Toeava and George Moala were both capped by New Zealand, 25-year-old outhalf McIntyre previously played with the Queensland Reds while his place-kicking halfback partner, Laidlaw needs little introduction.
Etienne Falgoux and Rabah Slimani are international props while only one member of the back five in the pack is under 6ft 5in, captain and New Zealand-born number eight Fritz Lee. That cohort includes the brilliant Fijian Peceli Yato, who along with Raka scored two tries last week; Yato crossed the Ulster line the last time he was in Belfast.
The home side could do with reprising aspects of their performance that were so effective three years ago, namely the courage to put the ball through the hands and attack from deep, mixed with a judicious kicking game. Poorly directed punting or a haphazard kick/chase will be punished. The set piece is another area of conflict in which the home side will look to do better than break even.
The French side have an excellent lineout with a variety of options while on opposition ball they don’t offer up much space. The scrum will be interesting. Clermont tighthead Rabah Slimani is like marmite to referees, they either love him or frequently penalise him for his angles. Georgian Davit Zirakashvili is the emergency button in bench terms.
There is no doubt Jack McGrath is a loss but former Templeogue College number eight Eric O’Sullivan has excelled before at this level and brings so much in his carrying handling and workrate. Rob Herring and Iain Henderson’s relationship at lineout time will be pivotal while Marcell Coetzee’s performance against Bath exemplified his quality and importance.
John Cooney – he needs to kick everything in sight from the tee – has been consistently excellent while Ulster will be hoping to give Billy Burns the space to indulge his creative vision. There is a nice balance to the midfield while Will Addison, Jacob Stockdale and Louis Ludik can prove a handful in attack.
Ulster must pursue the wider channels when the opportunities arise without losing structure and cohesion. Defence will be key. Coetzee said: “For a team that plays a high-tempo game, once they get their confidence up they have a great offloading tempo game, with dangerous ball carriers all over the park. That’s why I keep emphasising about our defensive system.
“As good as it was against Bath, I think we really need to step it up against this team because they pose a whole new other threat.”
The bookmakers have it as a one-point game. Clermont have won in Thomond Park (Munster) and the Aviva Stadium (Leinster) but never in Belfast in two visits. Ulster must remind them why; early and often.
ULSTER: W Addison; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns; J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt); S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee. Replacements: A McBurney, K McCall, T O’Toole, K Treadwell, N Timoney, D Shanahan, B Johnston, C Gilroy.
CLERMONT Auvergne: N Abendanon; P Betham, I Toeava, G Moala, A Raka; J McIntyre, G Laidlaw; E Falgoux, J Ulugia, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, S Timani; P Yato, A Iturria, F Lee (capt). Replacements: M Tadger, L Uhila, D Ziravashvili, T Lanen, L Dessaigne, M Parra, C Lopez, A Naqalevu.
Referee: JP Doyle (England)