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Dublin: 0 °C Sunday 24 February, 2019

Toulon the toughest test I’ve faced at Ravenhill – Chris Henry

The openside was on the front lines of a brilliant display of breakdown work from the visitors.

Image: Darren Kidd/Press Eye

SITTING ALONG SIDE his head coach and captain with a long red gash leading from his left eye towards his temple, there was no doubt Chris Henry had been in a war.

Yesterday’s 23 – 13 loss to Toulon was a breakdown battle in which Ulster were wiped out. There were minor skirmish victories for the home side, but almost every beam of hope was crushed out by an ultra-effective invader.

Asked if Toulon, and his direct opponents in the back row, had proved to be as tough a challenge as he has ever met, the 30-year-old said: “Definitely at Ravenhill anyway.”

At this stage, Henry is well placed to judge. A key component of Ulster’s rise to European prominence over recent season and just as important to Ireland’s Six Nations success early this year. However, the trio of Steffon Armitage, Chris Masoe and Juan Smith were just too much for one day’s work.

“We knew it was going to be a huge test for us and unfortunately we came up second best. For me, without a doubt it was up there with the intensity and physicality of anything over the years.”

In some ways, though probably not for players, this defeat is in some ways easy to accept. Toulon looked every inch the worthy champion at Kingspan Stadium.  They had their slices of luck, but they came hard-earned after the unit had dealt with major setbacks in the form of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Matt Giteau getting carted down the tunnel in the first half.

What players are certainly not yet willing to accept is that Ulster’s chance of escaping this pool has past.

The Heineken Cup era came and went without a team losing their opening two pool fixtures and qualifying for the last eight. So now that only one point has been won against Ulster’s two primary rivals (not to mention the promise of a January trip to Stade Mayol), anything less than perfection from here on in will spell an early end to their European interest.

“It’s very tough to take, but as Neil said, as long as it’s still possible to get through the group, we’ll be fighting,” said a defiant Henry.

Chris Henry and Roger Wilson tackle Chris Masoe Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’ve got a few injuries, obviously next week there’s a bit of separation now [international camp], but no matter what this team believes in themselves.

“We’ve got a great squad. With the team of players we have I still think there’s a chance we can fight through.

“Rugby’s like that sometimes. We’ll take the underdog tag now, but there’s a chance we’ll be fighting for it.”

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Sean Farrell

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