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Dublin: 2 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019
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No room for error this time as Clermont call to fortress Ravenhill

Dan McFarland’s men can take a clear lead in Pool 3.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THEY PULLED A result from the fire last weekend, Ulster. Tonight, they’ll have to hold Clermont’s feet to it.

The stunning try-saver from Jacob Stockdale at The Rec pasted heavy clumps of paper over the fact that Ulster botched the chance at a far more humdrum, sedate finish to the 16-17 win in Bath.

After Marcell Coetzee’s midfield turnover looked to be the game-ending play, the clock read 79.57. Rob Herring’s line-out went the shortest possible distance to Iain Henderson at the front, but it was not straight.

Cue two minutes and 21 seconds of heart-in-mouth, backs-to-the-wall mayhem before Stockdale’s magnificent intercept.

Clermont you feel, won’t be so easily pick-pocketed.

A week out from Europe, Dan McFarland’s side had set their stall out for a pack-led, away-from-home grind by pushing Munster for most of the way through the loss in Thomond Park. Back on home soil of Kingspan Stadium now, they must show the full breadth of their wares. The finesse on top of the physicality that brought them the right side of last week’s knife-edge.

It will start with getting the ball and retaining it.

“You cannot afford to give up as much possession as we did,” McFarland said on Saturday afternoon.

“For us as a team, I look at the way we attack and the kind of things that we can create when we get fast ball. I know what we can do with the ball in hand, we have got to treat it as precious.

“You give Clermont that much ball and they are going to torture us.”

The Top14 side were sorely missed from the top tier of European competition last season after a ninth-place finish in their domestic league. Franck Azema’s men were only beaten to the Bouclier de Brennus at the final hurdle by Toulouse in June and announced their return to the Champions Cup with the emphatic 50-point demolition of Harlequins.

On home soil, however, Ulster continually prove themselves able to gain an upper hand against the most vaunted of European teams.

This (kick-off 19.45 (BT Sport) will be northern province’s fifth meeting with Clermont and, with the score standing 2-2, home advantage has been telling on each occasion.

The last meeting at Ravenhill in 2016 turned into an exhilarating shoot-out as Ulster won out 39-32 and both sides walked away with try-scoring bonus points. The turnover in personnel for both sides in the intervening time is striking. Clermont retain just two of the same starters three years on -  Peceli Yato and Nick Abendanon. Ulster have five, but names like Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe, Charles Piutau and Chris Henry on the 2016 team-sheet make it feel like an awfully long time ago.

charles-piutau-with-remi-lamerat Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The centre combination – for all Ulster’s chopping and changing in that area – is the same. Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall working as the heartbeat of a back-line with McFarland’s rallying cry ringing in their ears, they will have their work cut out off the ball too with All Black-capped duo George Moala and Isaia Toeava as their opposite numbers.

John Cooney will hope to carry on his terrific form conducting traffic from scrum-half  and will relish matching up against a Lions tourist in Greig Laidlaw. Billy Burns, new contract fresh in his back pocket, is tasked with bringing the invention to the attack.

The loss of new signings Sam Carter and Jack McGrath to injury appears a severe blow, but they pack won’t be left wanting for work-rate with the dynamic Eric O’Sullivan stepping in.

It is in the back row where Ulster must really make their presence felt. The ever-excellent Fritz Lee captains the visitors from number 8 with the powerful Yato a destructive ball-carrying force. Fortunately for the hosts, on top of the breakdown expertise of Sean Reidy and Jordi Murphy, Coetzee has been striking arguably his richest vein of form throughout this year and was mighty unfortunate to miss out on the all-conquering Springbok World Cup squad.

If he is again seen making tide-turning interventions in the final minute this week, it will signal the tail-end of another massive Ulster effort. Yet they still must hit those vital last markers to close out a second win to move them top of Pool 3.

Ulster 

15. Will Addison
14. Louis Ludik
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10 Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rob Herring
3. Marty Moore
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Iain Henderson (captain)
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee

Replacements:

16. Adam McBurney
17. Kyle McCall
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Nick Timoney
21. David Shanahan
22. Bill Johnston
23. Craig Gilroy

Clermont

15. Nick Abendanon
14. Peter Betham
13. Isaiah Toeava
12. George Moala
11. Alivereti Raka
10. Jake McIntyre
9. Greig Laidlaw

1. Etienne Falgoux
2. John Ulugia
3. Rabah Slimani
4. Paul Jedrasiak
5. Sitaleki Timani
6. Peceli Yato
7. Arthur Iturria
8. Fritz Lee (captain)

Replacements:

16. Mike Tadjer
17. Loni Uhila
18. Davit Zirakashvili
19. Thibault Lanen
20. Lucas Dessaigne
21. Morgan Parra
22. Camille Lopez
23. Apisai Naqalevu

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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