Ferris key to subduing monster Clermont pack
DESPITE their progress last season, Ulster enter another Heineken Cup campaign with clouds of uncertainty swirling around Ravenhill.
Making the quarter-finals for the first time since their annus mirabilis of 1999 served as a significant boost but there is little indication they are ready to kick on from there.
The winning scoreline against Connacht last weekend did not reflect an underwhelming performance where there was an overall lack of cohesion and direction.
The positives for this afternoon's clash with Clermont (3.40) are that coach Brian McLaughlin was able to include captain Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris and Tom Court in an unchanged line-up and this triumvirate, along with out-half Ian Humphreys and hooker Rory Best, have massive leadership roles to play.
The French side are bringing a monster pack to Belfast, built around the bulk and nous of second-rows Nathan Hines and Julien Pierre, the line-out ability of Julien Bonnaire and a destructive front-row where tight-head Zirat Zirakashvili will be unleashed upon Court and the Ulster scrum.
John Afoa will help the home side in this regard but, if the Clermont forwards succeed in outmuscling their hosts, then the game is up.
Stade Francais showed how to beat Clermont last weekend with a 27-16 victory that was based squarely on their ability to match and dominate the Auvergne pack and you wonder if Ulster have the capacity to do the same.
Out wide, Clermont have some marquee names in Aurelien Rougerie, Regan King and Lee Byrne and the frightening prospect for their opponents in this year's competition are the names that are not present, Anthony Floch and Julien Malzieu among them.
Ulster have a pacy back three, with Craig Gilroy getting the opportunity to exhibit his verve and enthusiasm to a wider audience, while it is a big afternoon also for Darren Cave, an under-rated player who can put his hand up for consideration for the vacant Ireland 13 slot.
However, while an Ulster victory cannot be ruled out, there is no certainty behind any such prediction. They continue to lack balance in the back-row where Chris Henry, an excellent No 8, is yet again asked to fill in at open-side to accommodate Pedrie Wannenburg.
While Muller and the injured Ruan Pienaar have had a profound influence at Ulster, Wannenburg is the Springbok who has yet to properly justify his signing (although Stefan Terblanche is poised to challenge him for that status).
An Ulster upset would require rattling Clermont from the off with a couple of Ferris hits or bullocking runs bringing the crowd onside and Humphreys, as he is more than capable of doing, using the momentum to control proceedings and get the scoreboard going.
If Clermont concentration and commitment then falters, Ulster have a shot, but you suspect the French will have too much about them and they have plenty of points-gatherers, not least scrum-half Morgan Parra.
The nightmare home scenario is Clermont dominating the forward battle and cutting loose in the backline, fans streaming out of Ravenhill early, and Ulster having to raise themselves for next weekend's trip to Leicester.
It should not come to that, but a losing bonus point may be as far as Ulster get.
ULSTER -- S Danielli; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall;T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyriacou, P McAllister, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, W Faloon, I Porter, N Spence, A D'Arcy.
CLERMONT -- L Byrne; W Fofana, A Rougerie, R King, N Nakaitaci; D Skrela, M Parra; L Faure, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili; N Hines, J Pierre; J Bonnaire, G Vosloo, E Vermeulen. Reps: T Paulo, C Ric, M Kotze, J White, J Bardy, K Senio, B James, JM Buttin.
REF -- W Barnes (England)
Ulster v Clermont,
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