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Ulster have the chance to invoke the spirit of 1999 and take yet another famous scalp

Ulster hold a six-point advantage over Toulouse ahead of tonight’s second-leg in Belfast.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

OF ALL THE games this weekend, this is the hardest to call. On one hand you have a team of superstars, on the other a side whose home record is superb, not just across the last 12 months but since Dan McFarland became their head coach.

Think of the mess Ulster were in when McFarland took over. They needed a play-off victory over Ospreys just to qualify for Europe. Now they dream of winning the thing.

Hardly anyone – beyond the province’s boundaries – think they will. In fact most don’t even think they’ll survive tonight (kick off 8pm, live BT Sport 2), a date with the most successful club in European Cup history, a side who won when they last came to Belfast just over a year ago.

Even in the 16 months since, Ulster have grown up a lot. Nick Timoney failed to even make the match-day squad then; he’s something of a talisman now. Michael Lowry, however, can claim to be the team’s most improved player, even if James Hume and Nathan Doak are jostling for position on that particular podium.

Seeing as we are on the subject, Andrew Warwick deserves a mention. The loosehead rarely gets one but he’s in the form of his life, was brilliant off the bench last weekend, even managing to score a try.

andrew-warwick Warwick is in the form of his life. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

He starts tonight and with Rob Herring and Marty Moore for company in the front row, there is genuine hope that the Ulster scrum won’t buckle against the might of a pack that weighed in at over 1000kgs last weekend.

It helps that hooker Julien Marchand (calf) is still out; that Cyril Baille, their world class prop, and Francois Cros are also on the absentee list. But just when you are about to leave your seat on the fence and make a definitive call in favour of Ulster, you remember the carnage Toulouse caused with their counter-rucking last weekend, not to mention their disruption of the Ulster line-out.

Also, there’s a fear that Antoine Dupont won’t deliver another subdued performance for a second weekend in a row. Ulster policed Dupont brilliantly last Saturday, making sure the great man had company every time he attempted to make a supporting run upfield.

They’ll need to repeat that trick tonight, conscious of how Dupont practically won this tie on his own when he last came to Belfast in December 2020.

While winger Juan Cruz Mallia is suspended after his red card seven days ago, Zach Holmes has suffered a concussion,

The logical call is to go with the champions, the team who’ve delivered when asked to. In contrast, Ulster have a habit of losing key games: Leinster last year in the Pro14 regular season, Leinster the year before in the Pro14 final; Leinster in the 2019 Heineken Cup quarter-final; Leicester in last year’s Challenge Cup semi-final.

But tonight the above sentence could be subtly altered to say that Ulster had a habit of losing key games. They’ve already done the double over Clermont, Northampton and Leinster this season. Beating Toulouse away was asterisked with the fact they did so against a team reduced to 14 players for 70 minutes. Beating them at home, when the pressure is on, amounts to a coming of age moment.

“There’s something special about European fixtures here in Belfast,” McFarland said.

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“There’s so much at stake and the opposition are so good and have the potential to play such exciting rugby — it’s the thrill of the highs and lows that are possible in games like this that are so exciting for fans and so terrifying for coaches.

“The task is huge. The reward is huge as well. We’ll be ready for it.”

They need to be. If they’re not, Toulouse have the capacity to humiliate them. Win this and no one will doubt Ulster again. It’s the pivotal moment of their season.

ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, M Moore; I Henderson (capt), A O’Connor; Marcus Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Replacements: B Roberts, E O’Sullivan, T O’Toole, K Treadwell, J Murphy, N Doak, L Marshall, R Lyttle. 

TOULOUSE: T Ramos; D Delibes, T Nanai-Williams, P Ahki, M Lebel; R Ntamack, A Dupont (capt); R Neti, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina; Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold; R Elstadt, A Jelonch, S Tolofua. Replacements: G Cramont, D Ainu’u, D Aldegheri, E Meafou, T Flament, A Miquel, B Germain, L Tauzin.

Referee: M Carley (England).

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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