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'They have superstar players who make superstar plays - but we have the tools to win'

Dan McFarland’s Ulster face Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel-Michelin this weekend, hoping to get another monkey off their back.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland.
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

DAN MCFARLAND DIDN’T like it being equated to getting a monkey off their back, but in beating Leinster at the RDS Arena two weeks ago, Ulster finally did just that — and this week they face up to the same challenge all over again.

By accounting for their inter-provincial rivals in Dublin, it ended an eight-year wait for an away win against Leo Cullen’s men and it was only their second in the Irish capital since the game went professional just before the turn of the century.

Of the team that won at the RDS, only one — Craig Gilroy — was involved in that previous win back in March 2013, so for the rest of the squad it was a long-awaited first success that will surely have been accompanied by equal measures of relief as joy, and will have renewed belief they can produce big results outside of Belfast.

And, setting aside that defeat to the Ospreys in the meantime, Ulster know only a similar milestone performance will be required to get their Heineken Champions Cup campaign off to the perfect start when they head to the imposing Stade Marcel-Michelin to take on Clermont Auvergne.

On this occasion, however, none of the team will have any prior knowledge of what it is like to win at Les Jaunards. In three previous visits, Ulster have not triumphed in the intimidating venue that has left teams better than they battered and bloodied for their efforts.

What perhaps works in Ulster’s favour on this occasion, more than others, is that there isn’t quite as much baggage there as other teams would have taken to the Marcel-Michelin as before. After all, a sizeable portion of the team expected to start in Saturday’s game — including Ireland internationals James Hume and Nick Timoney — have no prior experience of tasting defeat against the French heavyweights.

Weighing up the positives and negatives of that is the question hanging over McFarland and, while he won’t pick his team based solely on past experiences against Jono Gibbes’ side, it will form a large part of how he prepares his side for their European opener.

“That comes back to the old monkey on the back question. People can obviously carry psychological blocks or hurdles with them. If you do anything a number of times and you haven’t achieved what you wanted to achieve then there’s obviously going to be some mental hurdle in the way to doing that,” says the head coach.

“If you’ve never had to face that hurdle before, you characterise it in a different way. For somebody younger and new, that can be good, but it can also be a surprise, can’t it? You never know how high that hurdle is going to be.

“I like to look at it as when you go away to a place like Leinster or Clermont in the European Cup, you frame in a way as we have the equipment to be able to beat that challenge and this is what it looks like. Do we need to need to do it really well? 100%. But we do have the tools to win this game.

“We’re going to have to play better than we did against the Ospreys last week to beat Clermont, but am I confident we can get to that level? 100% I am.”

It does help that there is a little bit of a rivalry brewing between Ulster and Clermont. Obviously not to the same extent as, say, Leinster and Munster or Leicester and Northampton, and not in an ill-tempered way either. Rather, the two sides tend to put on a spectacle every time they clash.

Their first meetings in the 2011/12 pool stages were decided by five and four points respectively. There was a 39-32 thriller at Kingspan Stadium five years ago. And John Cooney in particular will have fond memories of an 18-13 win on home soil just before the Covid-19 lockdown.

Add in the fact that, similar to coming into the Leinster game, Ulster feel they have a point to prove after that disappointing defeat in Swansea a week ago and the ingredients are there for a promising European opener in the Auvergne on Saturday evening.


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“They’re a great team. They have a lot of superstar players who are able to make superstar plays,” enthused McFarland. “That makes the task for us one of team-work and ensuring that we can bring collective pressure with the way that we play and put that pressure on to them. It’s a brilliant task but it’s a very, very difficult one.

“I can’t over-emphasise the quality of the challenge that they pose. In the last couple of weeks they’ve been able to bring in some of their star backs in Alivereti Raka, Damian Penaud and Camille Lopez. So we know the challenge that we have got and we’re really looking forward to it.”

As for Ulster’s own star power, they are set to recall Hume and Rob Herring after resting them last week, but they will be hoping for good news from the medical room in other areas of the pitch.

McFarland wasn’t in a position to provide an update on their injury situation on Monday, but they will be hoping that Springbok No.8 Duane Vermeulen will come through all the protocols after testing positive for Covid-19 last week and will be able to make his debut, while a quick recovery for tighthead prop Marty Moore who came off injured against the Ospreys would also be very welcome.

“It’s a quite complicated one this week so we’ll leave that one until Wednesday,” said the head coach on updating their injury situation.


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