Warwick and Ulster braced for task of countering enormous Toulouse pack

But stats show McFarland’s side possess the backs to thwart the champions again

Ulster prop Andy Warwick doesn't give much away in how to counter what his coach Dan McFarland this week called "enormous people".

The Toulouse pack weighing in at over 1,000kgs has not lost a scrum since this year's competition began. Their success rate is 100 per cent and for the lineout it is 95.9 per cent.

Away from all the guile and flash of scrumhalf Antoine Dupont and outhalf Romain Ntamack and the other goose-stepping backline players, the French will arrive to Kingspan Stadium on Saturday to demolish and carve. Whatever way gets it done.

“It clues you in to working as a unit and making sure we are working together as an eight and everybody is fully focused in each individual scrum, maul, lineout,” says Warwick of the Toulouse pack. “Everybody has to be giving their all. It’s the same as open play, we need to be working as a collective. You have to be in the moment for first maul, lineout.

“During the week you imagine in your head what it is going to be like. You have to carry out that role. It doesn’t really change if you are starting or on the bench. You have to be on from minute one.”

In Ulster the mood remains buoyant. They can look at the visiting pack and see the challenge of what is coming at them. But in the numbers game, what jumps out is how many non-Toulouse names are at the sharp edge of the attacking game. For that to be so Ulster forwards must be laying sound foundations.

Between the two clubs, Ulster's Michael Lowry, Ethan McIlroy and Robert Baloucoune are the top three players in line breaks. Lowry and James Hume top the list for the most defenders beaten with Dupont in third.

For the most metres made, it's Lowry again with 666 metres so far, Baloucoune and Hume with 424 each. Toulouse's New Zealand centre, Pita Ahki is fourth.

The top performers on both sides for carries runs like an Ulster team list from Lowry at the top with 57 to Hume, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen, Rob Herring, Marcus Rea, Kieran Treadwell and Baloucoune. Only centre Ahki gets into the top 10 at ninth with McIlroy at 10.

In try-scoring Baloucoune with five, Herring with three and Lowry with three lead that department too with Toulouse's 23-stone Australian lock, Emmanuel Meafou in fourth place with two tries.

“Obviously, I knew before the two games they are European Champions and were always going to be a challenge,” says Warwick, who got his first try in several years last week.

“We have approached each game as if we want to win each one. You have to approach it like you do every other game, every single game you go out to play. I think that’s the best way as a player, that mindset.”

Attacking scrum

Ulster's concern is not that they question their ability but what unstructured play the French team will bring to Belfast, especially off a dominant attacking scrum. Being eternally vigilant is one of the demands the players have been making of each other.

“Dupont, Ntamack are world class players,” agrees Warwick. “They can pull anything out of the bag. That means us as a team must be on the ball as a collective the whole way through the game. If we can work together that’s how to beat those individuals.

“Obviously you want to win your own scrum and don’t want to concede penalties. I think how we indent them, create a penalty . . .as I said if we organise as an eight that’s the only way we’ll make an impact against a team like Toulouse because they are such big men.”

Meafou is 140kg and Richie Arnold 125kg. Both started last week in the secondrow. The starting front row in Toulouse of Rodrique Neti, Peato Mauvaka and Dorian Aldegheri weighed 124kg, 124kg and 119kg respectively.

Size will count in the set piece. But as Ulster have shown throughout the competition with two wins away over French teams (Clermont and Toulouse) for the first time, there are more ways to skin a cat. The backs who are currently topping the charts might show it.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times

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