Match Preview: US Oyonnax vs. Ulster Rugby

Craig Gilroy

Craig Gilroy returns from injury to start at full-back

Sometimes a shock to the system is required.

We got one last Saturday with our defeat to Munster. In the end we couldn’t find the way around them that we needed and, to be perfectly honest, Munster probably deserved in the end purely for their passion in defence and their ability to close out the game masterfully. Credit Ian Keatley for taking his points when they were on offer.

Strangely we didn’t play all that badly, it was simply that a pass didn’t stick here or a kick fell a fraction too short there. It was just disappointing that given the high we were on from the wins over Toulouse and then the dogged victory over Connacht we couldn’t capitalise on Munster’s poor form. On another day we could very well have taken all four points had one of those moves come off, but as always, talking in ifs and buts will get us nowhere.

Instead we rally rapidly for our rescheduled first round Champions’ Cup match in the Alpine town of Oyonnax, with the game having been postponed following the dreadful attacks in Paris back in October. A timely reminder that there are so many more things important than rugby.

No longer can we say we’re heading to an unfamiliar location as technically we have been to Oyonnax already, however we do still face an unknown opponent. Oyonnax haven’t exactly lit up the Top14 this season and have slumped to second bottom in the league (only just better than basement-dwellers Agen) having lost nine of their 12 games so far this season, three of which have been at the Stade Charles-Mathon, a stadium they made a fortress last season.

No doubt Oyonnax are struggling to live up to the expectations placed on them. They lost influential fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta to Castres as well as their entire coaching staff to the same club, while their new signings have been rather underwhelming too – All Black Piri Weepu looked like a brilliant addition to their squad, however he has sat on the sidelines for a while through injury while their replacement coaching staff all left their posts two days before our original game was meant to be played.

It’s therefore not illogical to believe that the new coaches in will be focusing on the Top14 a lot more than the Champions’ Cup, and although they have publicly stated that they hope their European form may translate into their domestic form, you’d have to say Oyonnax are placing far more of an emphasis on European survival than trying to save face in Europe.

That does not make them easy opponents though. On their familiar plastic pitch they will look to play expansive rugby, feeding the likes of Irishman Eamonn Sheridan and speedy wingers Dug Codjo and Uwa Tawalo quick ball to play with. And any side that has ex-Leinster prop Stanley Wright coming on from the bench to shore the scrum up at loosehead is a threat.

We may have made several changes to what would be considered our strongest team, but given the quality of opposition and our desire to get the five points that will set us well on our way to reaching the quarter-finals, we should still have enough to come home with the win. These are the kind of games we have to ensure we get the maximum haul from if we do want to see ourselves as genuine competitors.

So back to the cold of Oyonnax we go, and here’s hoping for those five points…

The stats

This will be the first ever meeting between us and Oyonnax in any competition with this being the first time that Oyonnax have ever faced Irish opposition.

Despite having an excellent home record in last season’s Challenge Cup losing just one of their six games at the Stade Charles Mathon, Oyonnax have started their home Champions’ Cup form with a large defeat to Saracens in round 3. Meanwhile, having lost our first 14 games In France, we’ve won three of our last four games in France including our win in Toulouse in round 4.

Despite making the most tackles on average per game with 151, we have the second best tackle success rate in the Champions’ Cup at 91%. By comparison Oyonnax have the worst tackle success rate in the competition at just 79% which means on average they miss 27 tackles per game.

Stuart McCloskey will be hoping to continue his barnstorming form for us and will be looking to improve on his stat of 18 defenders beaten in just 26 carries.

The teams

Oyonnax have opted for a nearly whole new team with eleven changes to their side from last week’s defeat to Grenoble. Dug Codjo is the only back to keep his place on the wing and he is joined in the back three by Quentin Etienne and Uwa Tawalo while there is a new centre partnership of Alaska Taufa and Irishman Eamonn Sheridan, and also a new half-back partnership of Nicky Robinson and Julien Blanc. Up front hooker Jeremie Maurouard is maintained in the front row but he has two new props alongside him in Laurent Delboulbes and Marc Clerc. The second row of George Robson and Fabrice Metz is unchanged while it’s a completely new back row of Pierrick Gunther, Maurie Fa’asavalu and former Ulsterman Pedrie Wannenburg.

Ulster make six changes to the team that lost to Munster last weekend featuring a return to the team for Craig Gilroy at full-back. Sammy Arnold makes his Champions’ Cup debut on the wing alongside Rory Scholes with the centre partnership of Marshall and McCloskey unchanged. Ian Humphreys and Paul Marshall form a new half-back pairing. In the pack Ricky Lutton replaces the injured Wiehahn Herbst while at number eight Roger Wilson is preferred to Nick Williams.


US Oyonnax vs. Ulster Rugby

Sunday 10th January, 13:00

Stade Charles Mathon

Rugby Champions’ Cup – Round 1 (Rescheduled)


Live on Sky Sports 2



15. Quentin Etienne, 14. Dug Codjo, 13. Alaska Taufa, 12. Eamonn Sheridan, 11. Uwa Tawalo, 10. Nicky Robinson, 9. Julien Blanc; 1. Laurent Delboulbes, 2. Jeremie Maurouard, 3. Marc Clerc, 4. George Robson, 5. Fabrice Metz, 6. Pierrick Gunther, 7. Maurie Fa’asavalu, 8. Pedrie Wannenburg.

Replacements: 16. Thomas Bordes, 17. Stanley Wright, 18. Horatiu Pungea, 19. Leon Power, 20. Viliami Ma’afu, 21. Arthur Aziza, 22. Rory Clegg, 23. Daniel Ikpefan.


15. Craig Gilroy, 14. Sammy Arnold, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Rory Scholes, 10. Ian Humphreys, 9. Paul Marshall; 1. Kyle McCall, 2. Rory Best (capt.), 3. Ricky Lutton, 4. Lewis Stevenson, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Chris Henry, 8. Roger Wilson.

Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Callum Black, 18. Bronson Ross, 19. Nick Williams, 20. Sean Reidy, 21. Ruan Pienaar, 22. Paddy Jackson, 23. Louis Ludik.


Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)

Assistant Referees: Paul Dix, Andrew Small (both RFU)

TMO: Geoff Warren (RFU)