Match Preview: Ulster Rugby vs. US Oyonnax

Darren Cave

Darren Cave returns from injury to start against Oyonnax

Our European season thus far has been full of ups and downs.

From the lows of two losses to Saracens (who are my favourites to win the tournaments outright) and our first half performance in the Alps against Oyonnax, to the highs of a brutal demolition of Toulouse at home, the bliss of beating them on their own turf and our second half performance at the Stade Charles Mathon, our boys have certainly kept us on our toes.

And now we’ve made it to the final weekend and, alas, our destiny is out of our own hands. We can do all we can to make it into the quarter-finals by putting four tries past Oyonnax tomorrow, but in the end we are requiring results elsewhere to go our way for us to make it into the knockouts. It is far from the ideal situation we require, but at least unlike Leinster and Munster we do still have a chance to make it into the final eight.

Things could be different of course – had we put up a better fight at home to Saracens we could have acquired at least a losing bonus point and if we had played better in the first half over in Oyonnax then we did then we probably could have ended up with the four tries there. Perhaps we’ve shot ourselves in the foot a little bit, however there’s never a case for looking at ifs and buts in too much detail. What’s happened has happened and we have to deal with the here and now.

That means there is one result and one result alone that we should be aiming for: a four-try bonus point win.

Let’s be honest, 17 points isn’t going to be enough. Historically it hasn’t always been, and this season you would be very surprised if it was good enough to get us in. So there’s no point in holding back in our approach tomorrow – it has to be all out attack with four tries the minimum aim, and we shouldn’t stop there either because the better our points difference is the better our chance of reaching the final eight.

Standing in our way are Oyonnax who have proved in the last two weeks that they still have a passing interest in this competition. After an inspired first half against us they took the game to Toulouse last weekend and, in what can only be described as a blizzard, they managed to take all five points from that encounter, a result that lifts them above Toulouse and off the bottom of Pool 1.

However those games were at the home comforts of the Stade Charles Mathon. On the road, Oyonnax might resort to the default French away mentality of showing a lack of interest and it could make our afternoon slightly easier. You’d imagine if we can score early then there will be a desire on their part to reserve themselves for a battle in the Top14 to avoid relegation, and it’s certainly seems to be that way based on their reserved selection.

But with us going in with the mindset that five points will set the benchmark for the rest of the teams and with that in mind you have to back us to get the four-try win. With Darren Cave and Nick Williams back from injury and Jared Payne lining out at full-back again, the side is starting to look stronger and stronger and if we can keep up an 80 minute performance then we could put a huge score on Oyonnax and really put the pressure on the other teams.

Sadly, qualification is still out of our hands though.

The teams

Firstly, the URSC Team: – this will feature Tommy Bowe at the URSC info point from 12.00 noon to 12.20pm, so come along and get a selfie, an autograph, or maybe even a song! “What about her eyes?” Don’t be shy – you know you want to.

As for the teams taking to the playing surface? Five changes for Ulster including the return of Darren Cave from injury – he starts at outside centre with Luke Marshall switching to inside centre to accommodate him, while Stuart McCloskey takes a deserved rest having played in every Ulster game so far this season. Ruan Pienaar is ruled out with a virus so Paul Marshall starts at scrum-half. In the front row Rory Best drops to the bench with tightness in his back with Rob Herring taking over at hooker and at captain, while Ricky Lutton replaces the injured Wiehahn Herbst at tighthead prop. The final change is at number eight where Nick Williams returns from injury and is preferred to Roger Wilson.

On the other side, Oyonnax keep just one player from last week’s triumph over Toulouse – lock Geoffrey Fabbri the only survivor. Florian Denos captains the side from full-back and he is joined in the back three by Daniel Ikpefan and Dug Codjo. Guillaume Bousses and Alaska Taufa link up in the centre while there is a new half-back partnership of Scotsman Rory Clegg and Julien Blanc. In the front row there are first European starts for Thomas Bordes and Giorgi Vepkhvadze alongside the experienced Soane Tonga’uiha, while Leon Power joins the unchanged Fabbri in the second row. The back row is anchored by former Ulsterman Pedrie Wannenburg with Romanian powerhouse Valentin Ursache on the blindside flank and Pierrick Gunther, who was man of the match in our meeting two weeks ago, on the openside.


Ulster Rugby vs. US Oyonnax

Saturday 23rd January, 13:00

Kingspan Stadium

European Rugby Champions’ Cup – Pool Game 6


Live on Sky Sports 5



15. Jared Payne, 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Darren Cave, 12. Luke Marshall, 11. Craig Gilroy, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Paul Marshall; 1. Kyle McCall, 2. Rob Herring (capt.), 3. Ricky Lutton, 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Sean Reidy, 8. Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16. Rory Best, 17. Callum Black, 18. Bronson Ross, 19. Clive Ross, 20. Roger Wilson, 21. Dave Shanahan, 22. Ian Humphreys, 23. Rory Scholes.


15. Florian Denos (capt.), 14. Daniel Ikpefan, 13. Guillaume Bousses, 12. Alaska Taufa, 11. Dug Codjo, 10. Rory Clegg, 9. Julien Blanc; 1. Soane Tonga’uiha, 2. Thomas Bordes, 3. Giorgi Vepkhvadze, 4. Leon Power, 5. Geoffrey Fabbri, 6. Valentin Ursache, 7. Pierrick Gunther, 8. Pedrie Wannenburg.

Replacements: 16. Jeremie Maurouard, 17. Laurent Delboulbes, 18. Horatiu Pungea, 19. Fabrice Metz, 20. Maurie Fa’asavalu, 21. Fabien Cibray, 22. Regis Lespinas, 23. Eamonn Sheridan.


Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR)

Assistant Referees: Matteo Liperini, Simone Boaretto (both FIR)

TMO: Stefano Penne (FIR)

Citing Commissioner: Maurizio Vancini (FIR)