October 25, 2014
Following last weeks bonus point defeat at the hands of Leicester in Welford Rd Ulster will be looking to kick start their Champions Cup challenge today with a win over champions Toulon at Kingspan Stadium. A win today is a must for the Ulstermen otherwise their European season could be over after 2 games.
Ulster need to kick start their European challenge with a win today. European champs Toulon arrive in Belfast today without Johnny Wilkinson at the helm but with an outstanding standoff in Matt Giteau. Unnoticed by many, Giteau contributed a lot to Wilko's game and was a second play maker in the Toulon back line in their last 2 championship winning seasons. Ulster will have to hit the pitch running today to have any chance of beating a star studded Toulon back line. They need to start this match like they finished last week, at full throttle.
This will not have been lost on Rory Best who is playing his 50th European game today. He knows better than most that the line out was a shambles in the opening half last week, and that the breakdown was messy at best. Their game improved vastly in the 2nd half and they must continue this improvement from the first whistle today. This was always going to be a tight pool and the bonus point gained last week could yet prove vital in getting to the knockout stages. Ulster's mentality will be tested from the start with Toulon looking to turn over ball early on but I expect them to stand up and be counted after last weeks display against Leicester.
Toulon's star studded back line could yet prove to be their undoing. Coach Bernard Laporte prefers to make ground up the middle with Steffon Armitage and Mathieu Bastareaud being the main ball carriers. Bryan Habana, Delon Armitage, Maxime Mermoz and Leigh Halfpenny see little 1st phase ball and should Ulster target the middle area and turnover breakdown ball with the likes of Chris Henry, Roger Wilson and Jared Payne then it will surely be "game on".
Ulster have made 2 changes to the starting line up after last week's game. Roger Wilson at No 8 and Stuart Olding at 12. Wilson at 8 is the better choice for this match as he offers more around the pitch than Big Nick Williams. Also having Big Nick coming off the bench after about 55 mins should add some Halloween fireworks and scary moments to the last quarter.
One of the big battles will be between Andy Warwick and the ex All Black tighthead Carl Hayman. 6 months ago Warwick was playing for Ballymena against Seapoint in the AIL and today finds himself lining out against one of the most consistent tightheads of the last decade. If Warwick, Best and Herbst can hold their own up front then the Ulster pack could just shade it. The ever improving Franco Van de Merwe with Lewis Stevenson will provide the power in the engine room with, in my mind, the best No 7 in Ireland Chris Henry and Robbie Diack completing the back row alongside Roger Wilson.
In the back line Jared Payne will accompany Stuart Olding in the centre with Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik and Tommy Bowe making up the back three. Ludik's willingness to attack alongside Gilroy's dancing feet and with Tommy Bowe almost back to top form could prove crucial in securing a win today. A disappointed Paddy Jackson will have something to prove to Irish coach Joe Schmidt today so expect the full repertoire from Paddy. He is once again accompanied by Paul Marshall at scrum half. On the Olding selection I expect his greater experience won him the nod from Ulster coach Neil Doak ahead of the vastly improved and impressive McCluskey.
Today's showdown will be the first meeting between the sides and Doak will be boosted by Ulster’s record of six wins from their last seven against French opposition, while 11 of the last 13 clashes with opponents from across the Channel at Ravenhill have gone the way of the hosts. Toulon, though, have a fine record against Irish provinces with three wins and only one reverse, but Bernard Laporte will be aware all five of their defeats in the competition’s history have come away from home.
Andy Warwick speaking this week said, "Having watched Toulon’s tournament opener against Scarlet's on Sunday, Warwick is confident Ulster can get the better of the French outfit. “We've prepared very well through the week. We have to work on disrupting their set piece, competing well at the breakdown and getting up in their faces in defence to close the space down. We’ll be looking to have a far better start this week and I’m sure we will. It’s a huge game and one that we can definitely win!”
Never underestimate the power of the "16th man". The Ravenhill Roar will echo around Belfast this afternoon and will make Ravenhill an intimidating place for Toulon. SUFTUM.
Forecast: Ulster to win (just).
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik; 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Craig Gilroy; 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall; 1 Andy Warwick, 2 Rory Best (capt), 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 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 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Clive Ross, 20 Nick Williams, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Darren Cave
Toulon: 15 Leigh Halfpenny; 14 Delon Armitage, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Bryan Habana; 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Michael Claassens; 1 Alexandre Menini, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 3 Carl Hayman (capt), 4 Jocelino Suta, 5 Romain Taofifenau, 6 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 7 Setffon Armitage, 8 Chris Masoe
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Bakkies Botha, 20 James O'Connor, 21 Ali Williams, 22 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 23 Juan Smith
Referee Wayne Barnes (England)
Touch Judge 1 Tim Wigglesworth (England)
Touch Judge 2 Nigel Carrick (England)
Fourth Official Rowan Kitt (England)
TMO Rowan Kitt (England)
Citing Commissioner Peter Larter (England)