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Ulster's 'star quality' will be crucial in massive test against Toulouse

The Top 14 side will bring some big-name players to Belfast with them in the Champions Cup.

John Cooney has been in excellent form for Ulster.
John Cooney has been in excellent form for Ulster.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

ANTOINE DUPONT, ROMAIN Ntamack, Cheslin Kolbe – there is no doubting that the Toulouse squad is littered with star quality.

The last time Ulster played the French outfit back in September’s Champions Cup quarter-final, those three delightfully talented backs made their presence felt. Dupont darted and threw try-scoring passes, Ntamack calmly delivered moments of class, and Kolbe danced over for two brilliant tries.

So as the Irish province get set to welcome Toulouse to Belfast on Friday night for their opener in the 2020/21 European campaign, there is an acute awareness of how dangerous Toulouse’s big-game players will be.

For their part, Ulster have been hampered by an injury list that includes captain Iain Henderson, out-half Billy Burns, and a host of other possible backline starters in Rob Lyttle, Louis Ludik, Luke Marshall, and Rob Baloucoune.

And yet, Ulster still have many star qualities of their own. They have players who can provide game-breaking and game-deciding moments.

“That’s a difficult one because I love them all,” said head coach Dan McFarland when asked which of Ulster’s squad excite him ahead of a huge European game like this one.

“If I pick out a star, by implication someone is going to think I mean that the others aren’t stars but that’s definitely not the case! Am I going to give away selection early in the week?

“Well, John Cooney is going to play. We all know John Cooney is a superstar. He has been playing really well for us. He took a fair bit of disappointment from not being in the Ireland camp but John’s a guy who when he gets his teeth into something, he really goes for it and he has played very well for us. That’s been brilliant.

“It’s good to have Jacob [Stockdale] back, Jacob will probably make an appearance at the weekend. He has obviously got a bit of star quality in there.

“Lots of them do and we’ve actually got a few of those young backs who aren’t going to make the team who have got star quality as well, and a fair few injured backs with star quality.

dan-mcfarland-speaks-to-the-media-after-the-game Ulster boss McFarland is backing the quality in his own squad. Source: Rogan Thompson/INPHO

“The forwards? The forwards are mostly grunt and grind and a little bit of nasty edge but that’s what we regard as star quality in the forwards.”

Number eight Marcell Coetzee is another star. The South African was absent through injury for that trip to Toulouse three months ago but his fitness this time around is a massive boost for Ulster.

“He is a big player for us so that has got to make a difference to the way we approach the game,” said McFarland.

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Stuart McCloskey is another Ulster man who will be keen to make a major impact, particularly given how little game time he saw in Ireland camp over the last two months.

Big players often decide big games with big moments, as McFarland has pointed out in the past, so Ulster can have some belief that they have the totemic figures to do damage against Toulouse.

Of course, they will have to work very hard defensively to ensure that the likes of Kolbe, who showed delightful footwork to score twice the last time they played, don’t have prime opportunities to score.

“There are a couple of things we can do to make sure we don’t get in a position where we isolate a single man on the edge like we did last time,” said McFarland.

“Working as a team and being able to produce constant collective pressure is probably the key to that. What can you do in terms of dealing with one-one-ones? Probably not much.

“There’s a highlight reel of plenty of really, really good defenders and tacklers who have been made to look foolish by Cheslin Kolbe and I promise you that’s going to continue to grow.”

toulouses-cheslin-kolbe Cheslin Kolbe is a danger man for Toulouse. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Coming so swiftly on the heels of Ireland’s autumn Tests, it will be intriguing to see how Ulster launch their European season, although they will surely have benefitted from not having a large group of players away on international duty.

A cohesive group has won eight games from eight in the Pro14 so far this season, with six try-scoring bonus points along the way, but McFarland understands that Friday night will tell more about his side’s improvements since that last defeat to Toulouse.

“I know we’re playing a lot better,” said the Ulster boss. “We’re playing a lot freer now than we were back then. Guys prior to the quarter-final or start of the new block who weren’t in such good form are playing well now. We have a little bit more cohesion with some of the young fellas in the backs who didn’t get much time together prior to that.

“There are plenty of things there that have improved. Whether Toulouse have improved or not, I don’t know, I’m not sure. They will say they have because they hadn’t played many games at that stage [in September] but I know we’ve improved.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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