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Challenge of terrific Toulouse a world away from when Ulster broke their duck in France

Ulster reached two European finals before recording their first win in France. The 2013 win is long forgotten but stands as a useful stepping stone for today’s crop.
Sep 20th 2020, 7:00 AM 12,211 1

DAYS LIKE THIS are what professional rugby players aspire to.

Big, meaningful games in the sunshine of southern France, where the ground is that bit harder, the foe that bit more exotic, the language that bit more lyrical, the pitchside music that bit more intimidating; whining a brassy dirge to greet the slightest error or anxiety in your game.

Ulster won’t quite experience all the sights, sounds and smells of a knockout fixture in Toulouse this afternoon (kick-off 12.30, Channel 4), but their hosts are capable of bringing the very best of the nation’s rugby traditions to life.

France is a place that has traditionally been a bridge too far for Ulster. Although they were European champions in 1999 and runners-up in 2012, Ireland’s northern province did not manage to win a Heineken Cup match in the land of Les Bleus until 2013.

As it happened, they didn’t need to beat Castres in their round 6 encounter that January day. But the Ulster teams that have followed should be glad they did. Glad they placed a stepping stone that can now be taken for granted, giving some cause to believe today’s task is not entirely insurmountable.

Michael Allen was 22 and bouncing through the most enjoyable portion of his rugby career when Ulster broke their duck in France. His smile-stretching rise to become a regular around the first team in his native province was heightened because he broke into a team swelling with confidence after opening the season with a 13-game winning streak.

“I think I played in every game we didn’t lose until Christmas,” recalls Allen, now happily retired from rugby in Edinburgh and approaching his 30th birthday.

People ask when was the most enjoyable time playing rugby, it probably was then. I was involved in the squad, playing pro rugby and we went out for beers every weekend. And we backed it up by going on a 13-match winning run.

“It was class. No worries on my mind, going out to have beers after the match. At the time, I still lived around the corner with my mum. So I could park the car, have a few beers and dander on home.

“It was such a good bond in that team.”

That season’s winning run came to a shuddering end just as Tommy Bowe jarred his knee ligaments in a December home loss to Northampton.

remi-lamerat-and-michael-allen Allen tackling Remi Lamerat. Source: Kelvin Boyes Press Eye

Bowe’s absence made a little more room for Allen to flourish. And the centre, regularly deployed on the wing as a younger player, graduated to make his European debut in the round 5 win over Glasgow before playing his part in a little Ulster history a week later in Castres.

“What was the score, actually?” Allen asks when The42 called to test his memory of an otherwise forgettable 8-9 win at Stade Pierre Antoine.

“Oh, a thriller!”

It was no day for wingers.

It was a week when then coach Mark Anscombe’s ranks were depleted with Johann Muller alongside Bowe on a lengthening injury list. It was a day for the unheralded workhorses: Roger Wilson, Neil McComb, Lewis Stevenson. And, of course, the boot of Ruan Pienaar.

The romantic notion of France can be dispelled as quick as a plume of Gauloises smoke when you land in a functional town like Castres. In January.

“Bizarrely, I remember the hotel. Whenever we were away I used to always like to jump in the pool if there was a pool. They had an outdoor pool and I was thinking ‘nice, heated pool. That’ll be gorgeous’.

“One of the staff stopped me, going ‘No. It’s cold. Don’t go in.”

Castres does not exist to satisfy tourists. Paris and the Cote D’Azur are a long way away, Toulouse is over an hour’s drive across hilly countryside. When CO kick-off, the place can come to life, but the Top14  has always been their priority above European engagements.

As is their wont, Castres played a rotated side against Ulster’s makeshift outfit. still with Rory Kockott, ex-Ulster back row Pedrie Wannenburg, Remi Lamerat and Max Evans in tow there was plenty of firepower to be dealt with. Indeed, Allen’s abiding memory of the match is Evans and Lamerat combining to rise above the sticky surface and give the visitors a higher hurdle to scale.

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pierre-bernard-paddy-wallace-and-rory-best Rory Best and Paddy Wallace man the defence in 2013. Source: Kelvin Boyes Press Eye

They succeeded in doing just that, but a stuttering win against a knocked-out Castres didn’t bring immediate elation to Allen.

It would have been madness for Ulster’s senior cohort and management to issue reminders of their history in France. So Allen was blissfully unaware of the landmark that had just been reached.

“It wasn’t brought up that ‘jeez, this could be our first win’. I remember thinking I hadn’t played very well. But, when we won, the celebrations after were such a big deal. I remember David Humphreys, director of rugby at the time, he was beaming from ear to ear.

“I suppose it meant more to the older guys who had played in France before. It was probably my only time playing in France.”

As things panned out, Ulster’s reward for their landmark win in the Languedoc was a quarter-final away to Saracens – the first of two consecutive occasions when the 2019 champions would thwart Ulster in the last eight.

Boasting a talented group combining up-and-coming talent with serious star quality, the northern province were already bemoaning the gap back to their Celtic League win in 2006. A gap that still grows today.

There was to be no trophy for that Ulster squad, but the high bars and benchmarks they did hit still stand to ensure the current crop needn’t be burdened with ‘nevers’ or be tasked with completing ‘firsts’.

“You start to believe, ‘Ulster are able to compete and can do this’.  We could start to go away to any club thinking ‘we’re going here to win’”.

They can’t think any other way going in to face Toulouse today, but this visit to Occitanie is a world away the 2013 experience. Winning this time would would be an achievement on a whole different level.

Dan McFarland’s side were already without the influential Will Addison since the restart and Iain Henderson’s return last week was not enough to deny Leinster in a home Pro14 final. They could have done with having Marcell Coetzee fit to impact the breakdown and aid their offload game in attack.

Against four-time European champions who are once again stacked with talent and capable of fulfilling the romantic notions of irresistible attacking flair, Ulster will need to lean on all the previous feats and stepping stones they can.

Toulouse

15. Thomas Ramos
14. Yoann Huget
13. Sofiane Guitoune
12. Pita Ahki
11. Cheslin Kolbe
10. Romain Ntamack
9. Antoine Dupont

1. Cyril Baille
2. Peato Mauvaka
3. Charlie Faumuina
4. Rory Arnold
5. Joe Tekori
6. Jerome Kaino (Captain)
7. Francois Cros,
8. Selevasio Tolofua

Replacements:

16. Julien Marchand
17. Rodrigue Neti
18. Dorian Aldegheri,
19. Emmanuel Meafou
20. Alban Placines
21. Zack Holmes
22. Alexi Bales
23. Matthis Lebel

Ulster

15. Michael Lowry
14. Rob Lyttle
13. James Hume
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rob Herring
3. Tom O’Toole
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Iain Henderson (Captain)
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Nick Timoney

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Marty Moore
19. Sam Carter
20. Kieran Treadwell
21. Alby Mathewson
22. Matt Faddes
23. Matt Rea

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Sean Farrell

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