Ulster face the daunting prospect of travelling to central France to take on powerhouses Clermont Auvergne in a game that could decide who takes top spot in Pool 3.
The French side trail Ulster by one point in second place even though Ulster defeated them in Belfast in November but their bonus point wins against Harlequins and two against Bath leave the group tightly poised.
As expected the big guns return to the Ulster set up. Sam Carter and Louis Ludik are the only absentees that would likely take the pitch today in France but are ruled out due to injury.
Jack McGrath, Rob Herring and Marty Moore form the front row with the reliable pairing of Alan O’Connor and Iain Henderson behind them in the second row. Jordi Murphy returns from illness to start on the openside with Sean Reidy moving to six and Marcell Coetzee returning to number 8.
Murphy returns to the Ulster side for the first time since the away trip to Harlequins last month while Ulster dealt well with the absence of Coetzee last week against Munster. Being able to put in a stunning performance like they managed without two key players was impressive and will boost confidence ahead of this afternoon’s kick off.
The back line picks itself. John Cooney and Billy Burns are the half back pairing while Stuart McCloskey starts alongside Luke Marshall for the eighth time this season. Jacob Stockdale scored his first try this season against Munster while Robert Baloucoune was also among the try scorers. Both start on the left and right wings respectively while Will Addison is at full back.
Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez were named on the bench in the last meeting between the sides with Greig Laidlaw and Jake McIntyre the preferred options at half back for Clermont Auvergne. Parra and Lopez both start today so expect them to put Ulster under pressure early on. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them put Baloucoune under pressure with the high ball though the winger has dealt well with any questions asked of him in his short career to date.
Damian Penaud missed the trip to Belfast but starts on the right wing. Criticised for his defence, unfairly at times, Stockdale has the frightening task of policing the French international this afternoon. Much like his counterpart, Penaud is a fantastic player to watch and is one of the many excellent attacking options available to Franck Azema.
It would be a huge feat if Ulster were to return from the Stade Marcel-Michelin with a positive result. The French side have won their last six home games on the bounce and in Europe, their record is even more impressive. 30 wins out of their last 31 home matches in Europe with their only loss coming against Bordeaux Begles while Sale Sharks were the last club from outside France to win at the Marcel-Michelin over 11 years ago.
Qualifying for the next round
Ulster are in pole position to qualify from Pool 3. In Pool 1, Northampton are currently in second with nine points. They are expected to take the maximum five points against Benetton today and travel to an uninterested Lyon next week. They are likely to finish on 19 points
Pool 2 is the first pool that is unlikely to see a runner up finish with more points than Ulster. La Rochelle sit there currently on 10 points but have only one game left while Glasgow host Exeter this weekend. I can Glasgow finishing second in that group but only on 14 points.
Munster can still catch Ulster in pool 4. They travel to Paris tomorrow and need a win if they have any ambitions of qualifying. Facing Ospreys in round 6 at Thomond, they will surely reach 17 points.
Gloucester and Connacht are fighting it out for a second spot in the final pool. On nine and eight points respectively, Gloucester host Montpellier who are already out while favourites Toulouse travel to the Sportsground today. With a trip to Toulouse next week beckoning for Gloucester, it’s unlikely they will reach the quota to qualify for the next round. Toulouse could do Ulster a favour by defeating Connacht today and ending their chances.
Of course this is all irrelevant if Ulster win today as this would leave them only needing a point against Bath next weekend to qualify for the knock out rounds. Crucially, Ulster can secure qualification today if they win and deny Clermont a bonus point as it would leave Clermont need an bonus point win against Harlequins in their final game to equal Ulster points total and therefore Ulster’s better head to head record sets them in first place if it is followed by a loss against Bath next week.
Ultimately there’s no pressure on Ulster as they are underdogs. Clermont are an incredible side and one of the favourites for the whole tournament. Even with a loss, Ulster would be requiring a win against bottom side Bath next week at Kingspan Stadium.
|ASM Clermont Auvergne||Ulster|
|Nick Abendanon||15||Will Addison|
|Damian Penaud||14||Robert Baloucoune|
|Isaia Toeava||13||Luke Marshall|
|George Moala||12||Stuart McCloskey|
|Alivireti Raka||11||Jacob Stockdale|
|Camille Lopez||10||Billy Burns|
|Morgan Parra||9||John Cooney|
|Etienne Falgoux||1||Jack McGrath|
|John Ulugia||2||Rob Herring|
|Rabah Slimani||3||Marty Moore|
|Paul Jedrasiak||4||Alan O’Connor|
|Sebastien Vahaamahina||5||Iain Henderson|
|Arthur Iturria||6||Sean Reidy|
|Alexandre Lapandry||7||Jordi Murphy|
|Fritz Lee||8||Marcell Coetzee|
|Yohan Beheregaray||16||Adam McBurney|
|Loni Uhila||17||Eric O’Sullivan|
|Sipili Falatea||18||Tom O’Toole|
|Sitaleki Timani||19||Kieran Treadwell|
|Alexandre Fischer||20||Matty Rea|
|Greig Laidlaw||21||Dave Shanahan|
|Jake McIntyre||22||Bill Johnston|
|Apisai Naqalevu||23||Matt Faddes|