Ulster Rugby vs Clermont


monolith which was really transformed into one of the most spectacular attacking units when Vern Cotter arrived as Head Coach in 2006. ‘The Underdogs’ won a second European Challenge Cup in 2007, but triumph in the Heineken and Champions Cup has been denied twice by fierce rivals Toulon, in 2013 and 2015. This season Azema and his captain, Daniel Chouly, the superb French breakaway, have made clear that dominance in Europe is a priority, but Ulster too has realistic ambitions in that regard and the next week will probably decide which is in the best position to qualify from a group which includes a Bordeaux-Bégles outfit also chasing domestic glory, and the fast-improving Exeter Chiefs. The players who will be most familiar to Ulster fans will be scrum-half Morgan Parra, whose place-kicking can prove lethal, prop Thomas Domingo, out-half Camille Lopez and, of course, the brilliant centre Wesley Fofana. But it’s a star- laden panel, with England internationals David Strettle and Nick Abendanon vital cogs in the long-term project at Clermont. But Ulster is in a much better place this week, and not just because the trip to Cardiff was a winning one: Wiehahn Herbst has extended his deal until 2019 and he’ll hope to stay injury-free and prove what a quality-tighthead prop he is and why he was lured from The Sharks in Super Rugby two years ago. Henry, Henderson, Sean Reidy and Best would embellish any pack, and it’s to them and the younger, eager forwards around them that we’ll look for the platform for what would be a critical win. Behind the scrum Paddy Jackson’s authoritative autumn form for Ireland will surely give his half- back partner Pienaar the space to let loose an attacking armoury of exciting, combative and committed styles: hopefully Andrew Trimble can take his place on a wing, and Luke Marshall, McCloskey, Darren Cave, Louis Ludik, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Piutau and Jacob Stockdale

offer superlative choices to Les Kiss and Head Coach Neil Doak. There was much gloom at Ulster’s Champions Cup prospects after the first two games in October, the defeat in Bordeaux was characterised by a lack of concentration and poor decision-making, while the one-point victory at home over the Chiefs is not a match that will live long in the memory apart from its dramatic denouement when Jackson’s drop goal proved decisive. All coaches, all players, properly say that they cannot depend on others, they can only look after their own roles in the side, but on Sunday I’m sure many will be hoping that at Sandy Lane, Exeter can undermine Bordeaux-Bégles – preferably in a low-scoring game. Clermont have extracted maximum points from its two outings so far, and scored eleven tries: Ulster has the firepower and the discipline over the next eight days to totally transform the pool, and realistically aim for a place in the quarter-finals in the New Year. European nights – and European lunchtimes, remember Stade Francais succumbing in 1999? – are very special occasions in Belfast. With many injury worries resolved, the form of players reassuringly on ‘the up’, there is every reason to raise the rook at Kingspan Stadium this afternoon. The supporters relish the challenges from afar, and they know that their favourites are traditionally successful in front of their own fans, very definitely ‘the 16th man!’ Appreciate the visitors for their achievements and their qualities, but don’t for one second imagine that they are here to easily collect another win. They won’t, at this moment they will be acutely aware of the Ulster record on the pitch and on the terraces and in the stands. Make Saturday very special – by urging Ulster to a lunchtime Champions Cup rugby feast!



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