Ulster Rugby vs Clermont

Over the next week Ulster and this afternoon’s visitors to Kingspan Stadium are going to become very familiar with each other – in the sporting sense! AT CLOSE QUARTERS WITH FRANCE’S BEST

The club which currently sets the pace in the Top 14 in France has a magnificent, formidable history, yet it regards itself as one of the game’s great under-achievers, and famously relishes the notion that it is a constant underdog. Ulster will be rather more realistic about the challenge posed this lunchtime, not at all in thrall to the visitors but very aware of the threats which come from every department. Les Kiss and the players will have applied themselves with considerable vigour and focus this week, Europe is important to a club which undoubtedly has failed to realise its ambitions and potential in the Champions Cup far too often. Gone is the pall which threatened to hang over the squad and the supporters who watched the PRO12 leadership squandered with a succession of defeats, a nadir of sorts reached when Edinburgh somehow managed to send a team lacking cohesion and lacking confidence back to Belfast without even the solace of a losing bonus point. The postponement two weeks ago of the game here against Zebre was frustrating, because the determination to get back on track, to play to the strengths of such a quality-packed senior panel, was palpable. A week later redemption of sorts came with a classy display for much of the game at Cardiff, five tries scored, five points secured, and if there was a period late in the game when concentration slipped and afforded Cardiff a glimpse of an unlikely victory, there was evidence in the closing moments that perhaps a corner has been turned, doubts allayed. Chris Henry was back in an Ulster jersey for the first time this campaign, and at his marauding disruptive best, while Stuart McCloskey slipped back into midfield as powerful and creative as ever. It was a night in Cardiff when hope was definitely rekindled, a deadly rival put to the sword, and individuals casting off some recent inhibitions. This was an Ulster which could stir the fans blood, and today the teeming Kingspan will look for the character and resolve of the Arms Park to be replicated against France’s best.

Ruan Pienaar was imperious in Wales, and how he’ll relish the clash with Clermont. The scrum- half who has made himself such a Kingspan favourite and who will go down as one of the greatest players ever to wear the white shirt, has pledged that he will do everything in his power to leave in the summer, a trophy tangible proof of his – and the squad’s – talents. Another ‘big beast’ in Rory Best returns after his autumn heroics for Ireland, and with Charles Piutau and Iain Henderson falling into the world-class category, there really is solid cause to believe that Ulster’s recent record against top- class French opposition can be maintained. A year ago Toulouse was beaten twice within eight days by a side playing attacking, concentrated and intelligent rugby. Clermont Head Coach Franck Azema will be well aware of Ulster’s capabilities, and having rested several of his big names in the high-scoring defeat at Pau last weekend he’ll not want to follow an all-too- familiar trend of French teams under-performing ‘on the road’. In 2011, just after he took charge of the club, Ulster – en route to a Heineken Cup Final – beat his side and he exacted very narrow revenge in the Auvergne-Rhone Alps, so he’ll have steeled his squad for the cauldron he sees for the first time this weekend, Kingspan Stadium. The coach does ‘buy into’ the Clermont belief that it is always the underdog, that it hasn’t always been dealt a winning hand, despite the evidence of its pre-eminence domestically for a decade and more. Yes, it was at the 11th attempt that the Holy Grail of the French championship was achieved first in 2010, then repeated in 2015, but it was perennially in the Final shoot- out, first as Montferrand – a name by which it is still commonly known – then as ASM Clermont Auvergne, the rugby element of a remarkable sporting complex, AS Montferrandaise. Great players litter its history and its current roster: Philippe Saint Andre, Pat Howard, Olivier Merle, David Skrela, Alessandro Troncon, John Smit, the Rougeries, Jonathan Davies and Lee Byrne have contributed to the growth of a rugby




Made with