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Ulster face a tough task but they are capable of delivering a big performance in Toulouse

Dan McFarland’s face the defending champions in the first leg of their round of 16 tie.

Toulouse's Romain Ntamack faces Ulster today.
Toulouse's Romain Ntamack faces Ulster today.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WHEN YOU THINK of how Ulster began their game in Cape Town a fortnight ago and then reflect on how they ended it, you can’t help think that they’ve not just turned a corner, but are half-way towards their preferred destination.

Trailing to the Stormers by 14 points after six minutes, getting absolutely torn apart at the breakdown, their stubbornness in defence, tactical maturity to abandon Plan A and implement a more conservative Plan B, saw them claw their way into a match they should have won and would have won only for an ill-advised intervention by the TMO.

Scoreline aside, there was so much to admire, the deliverance of big players at key moments – Michael Lowry making big runs when the score was 0-14; Rob Herring excelling at the set-piece; Marty Moore helping to win a scrum penalty against a World Cup winner, prior to crossing for a try; Stuart McCloskey adding to his reputation with another fine score.

We could go on. The contest at the maul – a big Ulster weapon – was fascinating. So too was the fact Ulster finished stronger. What does that say about their fitness? Is Moore, after that performance, someone Andy Farrell needs to be looking at? Can he do a job in the south of France today?

Put it this way, he needs to.

Toulouse may, on the surface at least, appear to have slipped back a little from last year but bear in mind they been without Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack for 11 weeks of this season. Their priority, they’ve stated repeatedly, is Europe. That doesn’t bode well for Ulster today (kick off, 3.15pm, live BT Sport).

antoine-dupont-runs-in-a-try Dupont is Ulster's biggest threat today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The French side have won nine of their previous 10 home knockout games in the competition; Ulster have lost four of their previous five away games in the knockout stage. They’ll just want to get out of France today with the tie alive.

If that’s to happen we need to see the best of them. It helps to see Iain Henderson in an Ulster shirt, full stop – their captain had played just 135 minutes for his province this season prior to last Saturday. The team he leads out today is a hell of a lot stronger mentally than the one that suffered meltdowns against Leinster and Leicester last season.

Physically they’re also stronger while the bench includes a Welsh international, Bradley Roberts, two players who featured in Ireland’s Six Nations squad this season, Tom O’Toole and Kieran Treadwell, another player who scored when Ireland defeated the All Blacks in 2016, Jordi Murphy, and the most exciting newcomer in Irish rugby this season, Nathan Doak.

Another replacement, Luke Marshall, the half-forgotten man of Irish rugby, has the chance to remind us that he has a future and not just a past, while that backrow Dan McFarland has selected – Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney and Duane Vermeulen – is the best they’ve put together since Stephen Ferris was around.

Interestingly, Toulouse have conceded more turnovers per game than any other team in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup (20), while Ulster have conceded the joint-fewest turnovers amongst all teams remaining in the competition (9).

The big difference between Ulster this season, compared to previous years, is that you can trust them. Performances like the one they produced against Connacht at the Aviva are rare. The maturation of Lowry, Timoney and James Hume, combined with the emergence of today’s starting wing, Ben Moxham, plus Doak, means that a series of injuries is no longer a crisis.

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mike-lowry-is-presented-with-the-player-of-the-match-award Lowry has been a big plus for Ulster this season. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

For so much of this season they have been without Henderson, Marshall, Madigan, Jacob Stockdale, Jack McGrath, Murphy and John Cooney. Previously they wouldn’t have coped. Now they can. That’s why we’re backing them to cope with the considerable power of Toulouse and escape France with their reputations enhanced.

“We’ll be looking to neutralise a lot of what they have and making sure we go over as a collective and take away their individuals,” said stalwart lock, Alan O’Connor. “We all know who they have, so we’ll be trying to shut them down.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out precisely who they have to shut down. No player has averaged more meters (171) or defenders beaten (11) per game in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup than Dupont. If Ulster can limit the great one to some extent, they have reason to think positively about the return game in Belfast. That, admittedly, is a big if – but we are backing them to do it.

Toulouse

  • 15. Thomas Ramos
  • 14. Juan Cruz Mallia
  • 13. Zack Holmes
  • 12. Pita Ahki
  • 11. Matthis Lebel
  • 10. Romain Ntamack
  • 9. Antoine Dupont
  • 1. Rodrigue Neti
  • 2. Peato Mauvaka
  • 3. Dorian Aldegheri
  • 4. Rory Arnold
  • 5. Emmanuel Meafou
  • 6. Rynhardt Elstadt
  • 7. Thibaud Flament
  • 8. Francois Cros

Replacements:

  • 16. Guillaume Cramont
  • 17. Cyril Baille
  • 18. Richie Arnold
  • 19. Anthony Jelonch
  • 20. Alban Placines
  • 21. Martin Page Relo
  • 22. Sofiane Guitoune

Ulster

  • 15. Mike Lowry
  • 14. Robert Baloucoune
  • 13. James Hume
  • 12. Stuart McCloskey
  • 11. Ben Moxham
  • 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. Marcus Rea
  • 7. Nick Timoney
  • 8. Duane Vermeulen

Replacements:

  • Brad Roberts
  • Andrew Warwick
  • Tom O’Toole
  • Kieran Treadwell
  • Jordi Murphy
  • Nathan Doak
  • Luke Marshall
  • Rob Lyttle

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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