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Gordon D’Arcy: Ulster must improve again to claim a massive European scalp

Full-strength Toulouse will travel to Belfast in expectation, not simply hope

Watching Ulster beat Toulouse at Le Stadium at the weekend I had one or two flashback moments to my playing career as I tried to contextualise what it might mean for Dan McFarland's squad if they can kick on and complete the task in the second leg on Saturday night in Belfast and then take that momentum deep into the tournament.

The first point of recall was Leinster's first victory on French soil, a 23-20 success against Montferrand – they are now known as Clermont Auvergne – in December 2002. We had lost in our previous six visits to France, so it was a significant milestone.

Denis Hickie scored a late try but I crossed for our first that day which should have been a cause for celebration. Unfortunately, French wing David Bory slid into my back, knees first; I was stretchered off and wouldn't return to a pitch until the New Year. We won a few more times in France but it would still be another seven years before we lifted the Heineken Cup.

The jumping-off point for that journey began with our victory in Toulouse in 2006 and, even then, we had to mature further, mentally, and physically in terms of the way we played, before we were rewarded with silverware in Europe.

Robert Baloucoune’s brilliant individual performance capped by a hat-trick of tries in a game skewed by a red card has ostensibly given his team a six-point start in Belfast in Saturday’s second leg but will that win in Toulouse have wider ramifications.

My concerns regarding a power deficiency within Ulster’s tight five in the pack remain. Toulouse, despite being reduced to 14 players for most of the match, nearly managed to claw their way to an unlikely victory and with Romain Ntamack’s late converted try, shrunk Ulster’s advantage from 13 points to six.

Ulster also got the benefit of some good fortune. A forward pass in the build-up to Baloucoune’s second try was not spotted by the officials while in the moment ahead of Antoine Dupont’s final knock-on, Iain Henderson came perilously close to conceding a penalty and a yellow card.

Ulster’s recent glass ceiling in European rugby terms has been two quarter-finals in the last three years but they seem better equipped to break that barrier; albeit acknowledging Toulouse beat them 29-22 in Belfast last season and a repeat of that scoreline would put the French club through. Saturday’s visitors will travel in expectation, not simply hope.

What sufficed in France won’t in Belfast because Toulouse should be better and if Ulster lose as many collisions again on Saturday night, they won’t be able to survive against a team with a full complement of players. Dan McFarland will take heart from the trouble that they caused the French side when in possession; James Hume and Baloucoune consistently caused problems with their speed and footwork.

Ulster were also clever and effective in the way they chaperoned Dupont. They identified his running lines following line-breaks and were able to shut off the passing channel to him. It saved them conceding two tries. Toulouse’s power game doesn’t wane, instead it’s replenished from the bench. Physically they are a huge side.

Body language

Marty Moore and Duane Vermeulen were able to match their counterparts in contact but in general terms Ulster will have to be a little more judicious in taking collisions. There were times when Ulster were a little too passive in defence in trying to stay connected. If you give Toulouse time, they’ll find the space.

Ulster’s body language is also going to be so important from the first whistle. A team must project confidence as if to say to opponents, ‘we’ve got your number’. For them to be successful they’ll need to build on that win last weekend, fix the blemishes and find one or two other areas in which they can exploit Toulouse’s weakness.

The momentum of a victory here cannot be overstated when zooming out and looking at the tournament in general. There are many requirements in strict rugby-playing terms to be successful, but the confidence extracted from winning and the manner of it is a primary fuel source for the journey.

All four Irish provinces will have extracted some pleasure and satisfaction from aspects of their respective performances. The question now is how much energy, physical and mental, is left in the tank to negotiate the second leg of the ties.

Connacht will be happy with the way on one hand they dictated the tempo of the match at various points and created opportunities. Also when Leinster threatened to break free they found a way to disrupt and frustrate and cling stubbornly to the visitors' coattails.

John Porch’s try was so pleasing to watch, lovely lines of running and simple handling unpicking a defence that was numbered up, four-on four. Bundee Aki’s straight running with ball in two hands held the defence. Jack Carty played flat behind his centre and was able to release Porch who ran a superb arc to get outside of Robbie Henshaw’s line of vision.

The arc created a disjoin between centre and fullback that could only be exposed by quick and accurate handling. Carty duly obliged. This was Connacht at their very best, so dangerous off quick ball.

Leinster still left with a five points advantage and their ability to prise open the Connacht defence even when the visitors weren’t at their best suggests that Andy Friend’s team could potentially be in for a long night on Friday. The western province doesn’t defend as well as it attacks. To mitigate against that disparity, they would have to play at a ridiculously high level in attack of which I don’t think they are currently capable of doing.

There is a requirement on both teams to improve from the Sportsground. If Leinster are afforded the same level of possession and territory at the Aviva Stadium on Friday night, then I think they will make that count more emphatically on the scoreboard.

If they don’t make that jump, then they can have no complaints should Connacht overturn a five-point deficit. Pressure is a double-edged sword, it can induce sub-par performances, or it can sharpen the focus.

Familiar territory

This is familiar territory for Leinster, and they will need to relish the fight, one that may stand to them further down the road. There is pressure on the favourites and I am really interested to see how they handle it.

I noted the enemy within last week and, while Leinster scored some phenomenal tries, they made hard work of the fixture. With individuals carrying the team over the line, like Hugo Keenan continuing to deliver at such a high level, with his partner-in-crime James Lowe combining for a total of 287 metres to keep their nose ahead; this is slightly less than the metres carried by the entire Connacht backline.

The final province in action, Munster, were nothing short of heroic in a defensive rearguard action at Sandy Park but they were once again largely sterile in terms of creativity. They are nevertheless set up to win this fixture having rode their luck last weekend, and possibly buoyed by the appointment of Graham Rowntree to succeed Johann van Graan next season.

The fact that Munster only scored once during a 10-minute period when Exeter had 13 players will hopefully not become a cause of regret. In an aside, it also shines a light on the importance of Rowntree's decision on a new attack coach next season. Had Exeter centre Henry Slade either got the intercept or not gone for it in the build-up to Shane Daly's try, things might have turned out differently.

While Exeter’s Rob Baxter said all the right things in his post-match interview in how they navigated with two men in the bin, he will be bewildered with his team’s inability to put the ball down over the try line and how close this match ended up.

Saturday’s match was a reminder that there is always something special in the offing when Munster take the field in Europe, although it feels like they are doing it with one hand tied behind their back. Having to rely on defence begs the question of what they could accomplish if their attack clicked into gear.

There will be a big focus on selection in Munster this week. Ben Healy will feel he has done enough to retain the 10 jersey. Whatever permutation van Graan goes for in the backrow, one of those places belongs to Jack O’Donoghue. Anything other than that would be a travesty.

Irrespective of whether it is Healy or Joey Carbery at 10, any sort of a measured performance should be enough to make up the five-point deficit and win out over the two legs.

There is a sense of anticipation about this weekend’s matches; there is no room for error. This is the part of the campaign stage where the foundations laid during the pre-season and built on during the last number of months will begin to show.

As a player or more appropriately as an ex-player I remember this type of match with great fondness. When you are in a dressing room, and you know that if the team is accurate, composed and motivated that you can win; it is a fantastic place to be.

Why, because you can focus on just your own job, do that to the best of your ability and trust others to do theirs. While we are not yet at the stage where we cling to big moments to win games, this is make-or-break rugby and wins are rarely about the extraordinary, they are built on basics, executed to a high standard. That’s the challenge this weekend.