Stevenson urges Ulster to create 'bit of history'
WHILE the rest of the world's eyes were deflected elsewhere in August, Ulster achieved what was a significant milestone in their history.
By beating Bayonne 20-15 at Parc des Sports Jean in their opening pre-season match of the campaign, Mark Anscombe's men had become the first Ulster team to win in France.
Only three of that starting side, Craig Gilroy, Neil McComb and Robbie Diack, remain for today's visit to Castres, but it has been referenced as a starting point for the impressive run of wins that took Ulster into December without defeat.
They finally succumbed to Northampton in Round 4 of the Heineken Cup, a slip that means their goal of a home quarter-final is dependent on their ability to win in France again, but this time in a competitive match.
Ulster's start to the season has taken its toll and they are attempting to make history without Johann Muller, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Jared Payne, Dan Tuohy and Nick Williams. So, it won't be easy.
But, for all of their formidable home reputation, the Stade Pierre-Antoine is not an impenetrable fortress and defeat to Northampton last week ended their interest in the competition. Munster and Scarlets won at Castres last season, so even an understrength Ulster can do a job there.
Payne's loss will be keenly felt, although all eyes will be on Craig Gilroy's form at full-back. Ireland's new golden boy has been on the wing all year, but his side-stepping ability will be worth watching from the more central position.
Michael Allen comes on to the wing instead of Gilroy, with another intriguing selection coming at half-back, where Anscombe has partnered Paul Marshall and Ruan Pienaar, leaving Paddy Jackson on the bench after a difficult night against Glasgow.
Up front, Neil McComb is brought in for Iain Henderson, who joins his former Ireland U-20 captain Jackson on the sidelines.
McComb will join Lewis Stevenson in the second-row and the lock, who was called up to the extended Ireland squad this week, believes that Ulster have nothing to lose this afternoon.
"If we are beaten we haven't lost anything," he said. "But if we go and get that win, or even a bonus point, we get a home game and that's massive for us. No team in the quarters-finals would want to come to Ravenhill," said Stevenson.
"It's a massive game and another challenge and another opportunity for us. Though we've qualified, there's still a huge hurdle there for us and it's important that we go there and do a job. We've got to win the game first and then maybe the bonus point will come."
Castres have named a strong side that includes former Ulster No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, but Stevenson believes that the win over Bayonne in pre-season can stand to his side.
"They are a massively physical team – a true French team in that respect. They have a huge set of forwards and pacey backs, so we've got to front up," said Stevenson, who believes the time is right for Ulster to create a little bit of history.
"All of our results this season have been about building that confidence that we can go to these places and win. We've won in France before, albeit in a pre-season against Bayonne. Hopefully, we can draw from some of that experience on Saturday."
Having put so much into getting into this position, it would be a shame to drop the ball now. They should have enough, just.
Castres Olympique – P Bernard; M Evans, S Bai, R Lamerat, M Garvey; R Tales, R Kockott; Y Forestier, MA Rallier, A Peikrishvili, M Rolland (capt), C Samson, M Babillot, P Faasalele, P Wannenburg. Reps: B Mach, S Taumoepeau, H Lazar, J Tekori, T Lacrampe, J Bornman, P Bonnefond, M Andreu.
Ulster – C Gilroy; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, M Allen; R Pienaar, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, L Stevenson, N McComb, R Diack, C Henry (capt), R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, I Henderson, M McComish, M Heaney, P Jackson, C Cochrane.
REF – N Owens (WRU).
Castres Olympique v Ulster,
Live, Sky Sports 3, 1.35