Ulster not looking at Toulouse trip as part of 'Champions League football type scenario'

Dan Soper insists they are treating this week’s Champions Cup last-16 first-leg in isolation, rather than the first half of their tie.

Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper.
Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper.
Image: Inpho.

ULSTER ASSISTANT COACH Dan Soper insists they are not looking at this week’s Heineken Champions Cup last-16 first-leg in Toulouse as the first half of their tie and are instead treating this match in isolation.

The aggregate system is something of a novelty, only introduced due to the pool stage of the European competition being reduced to four games and likely being removed next season, but it throws up a new dynamic for most of the teams competing.

Fresh off their double-header against the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls in South Africa – which yielded two defeats – it certainly has worked against Ulster as, instead of facing defending champions Toulouse in a one-off game at Kingspan Stadium, they have to navigate a tricky test at the Stadium de Toulouse on Saturday first.

It throws up plenty of new scenarios, especially in the latter stages of the first leg when teams may try and close up shop to take a narrow deficit back home rather than throwing the kitchen sink at their opponents to try and snatch a win, but rather than getting bogged down in the tactics, Soper isolates this game as a one-off.

“We’re very much looking at game one and we’re just focused on winning game one. That’s our only focus. We’re not looking at this in terms of a Champions League football type scenario, we’re firmly focused on this game,” says the attack specialist.

“We’ll go to Toulouse trying to win that game and then, off the back of that, we’ll look at the next one. We’re firmly focused on week one and haven’t really discussed that it’s a two-leg event. It’s just about the first week and trying to win the game.”

Toulouse have been on a wretched run of form since the start of the Six Nations, losing six of their nine outings, although any team would struggle in the ultra-competitive Top 14 when shorn short of ten of their stars to the French national team on the way to ‘Le Grand Chelem’.

With World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont back in the squad, flanked by other world-class talents such as Cyril Baille, Anthony Jelonch and Romain Ntamack, they are a much different proposition, something that Ulster are well aware of from their various battles down the years.

The two sides have somehow contrived to meet twice since rugby’s resumption after the pandemic, with Ulster beaten on both occasions, and Soper has warned that it will take an 80-minute performance to keep their hosts in check on Saturday.

“They’ve got so many world beaters, don’t they? They’ve got so many talented guys that can pull something out of nothing and we’ve seen that the last couple of years when we’ve had the opportunity to play them,” he marvelled.

A team like that, when they have so many individuals, you try and be strong as a collective. If you’re strong as a collective then if you can stay on it and stay strong then you give yourself a chance.

“You think back to the game here we played against them in Belfast last year, two early tries where Cheslin Kolbe had a bit of brilliance and we switched off for a minute, and Dupont the same.

“You’re talking about big, skilled players who can get a lot of offloads away. You’re talking about individuals in the back who, at the click of a finger, are away and have changed the game. There tends to be a certain way the French teams play – you see that with the national team, they have a way of turning nothing into something brilliant.

To deal with that, as I’ve said, it takes a real collective effort of 15 guys staying in the moment for as much of the 80 minutes as they can.”

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While it is easy to say that Ulster’s only injury doubt is winger Ethan McIlroy, who shipped a head knock in the third minute of their loss to the Bulls and is undergoing the return to play protocols, the 21-year-old has been a mainstay in the squad when available and his likely absence would leave the province somewhat short in the back three.

Fortunately there is relief on the horizon with Ireland winger Robert Baloucoune available again for the trip to the Stadium de Toulouse, and he will be a welcome sight having skipped the tour of South Africa for undisclosed reasons.

“Rob’s good to go, he’s fit. He’ll be into training and he’ll be available for selection,” confirmed Soper.


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