Match Preview: Ulster Rugby vs. Stade Toulousain

Alan O'Connor

Alan O’Connor starts in the second row in place of Dan Tuohy

In a World Cup year there is a very short break between the European pool matches – I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

Off the back of a performance of two halves against Edinburgh, in which the first we established our platform and then in the second we mastered the conditions to protect it, we turn our attentions back to the Champions’ Cup and the arrival of Toulouse to the sunny shores of Northern Ireland, fresh off their battering of pool rivals Oyonnax, 27-3 at the Stade Ernest Wallon which we shall be visiting next Sunday.

Toulouse have a renowned reputation as one of rugby’s galacticos, even if they haven’t had a trophy in their grasp since 2010, and just one look at their team will tell you what a test they will pose to our injury depleted side. The typical French side, they have thrown money at their team and it is littered with international and hometown stars, and they have already begun their recruitment for next season with France winger Sofiane Guitoune already signed up for next year.

Their Top14 form has been very good too. They did not lose too many players to the World Cup (seven) and having Guy Noves at the helm during that period will have helped too as they swept nearly all before them and finished the World Cup period second in the Top14 table. Since then they have lost Noves to the France international job and their form has been slightly less impressive, but they still occupy third in the table and come into this game off the back of a bonus point win.

They have the luxury of losing this game and having their qualification hopes intact – we do not. After our defeat to Saracens three weeks ago we are already staring elimination in the face and if we ship one more then we will probably have to embrace it. Some on here will argue that even attempting qualification is futile, but while we’re still in the competition we have to approach it as if we can still qualify, and therefore we cannot lose tomorrow.

With a whole plethora of injuries that will be very hard to avoid. But who knows, hopefully our young guns can shock the whole rugby community and pull off a superb win that keeps our dreams alive for another week at least. Kyle McCall has taken his chance exceptionally, now there’s the chance for the likes of Alan O’Connor and Rory Scholes to impress on the highest stage too.

The stats don’t lie though – we are good against Toulouse in Belfast. I’m sure most of us will remember a certain knock-out win back in 1999, and even if you don’t there’s also the 30-3 triumph back in 2006 when we had three tries by half time and yet somehow failed to pick up the bonus point. French sides typically do not travel well.

However we did lose our last home game against French opposition (Toulon) and have only won two of our last six games in Europe – but that is probably more of an indictment of how the spending of the French and English have eclipsed the Irish provinces.

Meanwhile for Toulouse, their dangermen are Louis Picamoles and Sebastien Bezy – France number eight Picamoles has made 37 carries this season, the most in the tournament, while Bezy has landed five kicks so far in the Champions’ Cup and is the only kicker yet to miss a shot at goal.

Perhaps a win this weekend wouldn’t be a bad result for us – it would be a huge confidence boost that we could see off one of the best sides in Europe with such a large injury list and maybe, just maybe, it could be the catalyst for quarter-final qualification. Then again, a nice resounding loss would end our interest in Europe altogether!

Of course I am only joking, we must cheer on the Ulstermen. Otherwise we could be facing another early European exit…

The teams

Seven changes to our team from that which played Edinburgh last Friday, most of which are enforced due to injury. With Peter Nelson and Darren Cave ruled out both Louis Ludik and Stuart McCloskey are promoted from the bench to the starting line-up with Luke Marshall shifting to outside centre and McCloskey starting on the inside. Elsewhere Craig Gilroy returns to start on the wing in place of Rory Scholes who is on the bench. Up front Rory Best and Wiehahn Herbst are recalled to the front row with Rob Herring and Ricky Lutton relegated to the bench while Alan O’Connor benefits from Dan Tuohy’s injury to start in the second row. The final change sees Robbie Diack return from concussion to start at blindside flanker with Iain Henderson ruled out.

The final piece of team news is that Darren Cave will be on the URSC team from 6.45pm to 7.10pm, so why not come along to the URSC info point in the food village, directly opposite the Kukri shop, and enjoy the craic that Darren always brings to any occasion? Bring the kids for a selfie and/or an autograph – just don’t damage his shoulder any more than it’s already banjaxed.

 

Ugo Mola has made five changes to his team that defeated Oyonnax last weekend with a host of top names returning to their starting line-up. Winger Maxime Medard is recalled to the wing in place of Arthur Bonneval as one of two changes in the backs with Gael Fickou’s return to the centre the other as Florian Fritz drops out due to injury. Up front the front three are unchanged but Yoann Maestri is brought back to start in the second row at the expense of Romain Millo-Chluski, while in the back row there are returns for Yacouba Camara and Louis Picamoles with Imanol Harinordoquy dropped and Talalelei Gray ruled out due to injury. Thierry Dusautoir captains the side from the openside flank.

 

Ulster Rugby vs. Stade Toulousain

Friday 11th December, 19:45

Kingspan Stadium

European Rugby Champions’ Cup – Pool Game 3

 

Live on BT Sport Europe

 

ULSTER RUGBY

15. Louis Ludik, 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Craig Gilroy, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Kyle McCall, 2. Rory Best (capt.), 3. Wiehahn Herbst, 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Chris Henry, 8. Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Andrew Warwick, 18. Ricky Lutton, 19. Clive Ross, 20. Roger Wilson, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Ian Humphreys, 23. Rory Scholes.

STADE TOULOUSAIN

15. Clement Poitrenaud, 14. Vincent Clerc, 13. Gael Fickou, 12. Toby Flood, 11. Maxime Medard, 10. Luke McAlister, 9. Sebastien Bezy; 1. Vasil Kakovin, 2. Corey Flynn, 3. Census Johnston, 4. Yoann Maestri, 5. Joe Tekori, 6. Yacouba Camara, 7. Thierry Dusautoir (capt.), 8. Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: 16. Julien Marchand, 17. Cyril Baille, 18. Dorian Aldegheri, 19. Edwin Maka, 20. Gregory Lamboley, 21. Gillian Galan, 22. Jean-Marc Doussain, 23. Alexis Palisson.

 

Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)

Assistant Referees: Tim Wigglesworth, Paul Dix (both RFU)

TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)