Ulster must make massive statement to avoid exit - Best
IT may seem prematurely dramatic but if Ulster cannot amend the damage caused by opening weekend defeat in Leicester, then their European aspirations could be binned by 3.0 this afternoon.
Such is the tightness of this pool, it may still be conceivable that a side could emerge from a 0-2 position; but it remains highly unlikely for the exact same reason.
The quality in this pool is too strong; Ulster flunked their opening examination last weekend and they simply must make amends before their home faithful in today's lunchtime kick-off.
Rory Best, making his 50th European appearance but seeking to cast aside last week's individual and collective implosion, pronounces the facile parameters within which this tie against the defending back-to-back champions takes place.
"If you lose this," says Best, "Toulon are two from two and we're nought from two. In a six-game tournament with only four games left and Toulon's formidable home record, it would be nearly impossible to qualify.
"Our European pedigree over the last few years has been building and I think it's vitally important that it continues to grow.
"We've now an opportunity to make a massive statement in what we do against a world-class team.
"We know we can't go have a 10 or 15-minute period like we did at Leicester and go mistake after mistake after mistake.
"I know we're hurting but I don't think it matters how much you're hurting on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, it's how much you're hurting on Saturday that really counts."
Neil Doak has made only two changes, switching ineffective performers whose early form this season unfortunately did not carry into the European theatre.
Nick Williams, too often seized upon by the opposition and easily outplayed because his one trick - admittedly a powerful, strong running trick - can be defended by stronger teams.
Roger Wilson performed much more effectively when he was introduced last week as Ulster grew much stronger in the last half-hour; similarly, the introduction of Stuart Olding reflects the young centre's more penetrative impact than the hitherto stellar McCloskey.
"I want to start every game," Olding declares. "I haven't done that in the last few weeks because other players have been fit and there have been game management reasons so it's been frustrating.
"Stuart has done unbelievably well, he's been one of the stand-out players. But if I was in there would I be able to do as good as a job. I have to think I can. I have to be able to back my belief in myself.
"I believe in my ability and my awareness in my game. I know I can make an impact."
Ulster must make an impact tonight in this novel pairing in European competition; Toulon's five losses in the tournament have come away from home and Ulster will be hoping to pounce on any faint signs of mental weakness.
If a side of such modest aspirations as Cardiff Blues can manage, as they did last season in a famous Principality ambush, to turn over the galacticos of world club rugby, then Ulster must fancy their chances.
Ulster have won six of their last seven games against French opposition and 11 of 13 home games; the Ravenhill factor will be worth at least a penalty goal to the hosts.
But Ulster must endeavour to make that work to their advantage, too, if they are to maintain their impressive run of 16 home pool wins from their last 17.
Defeat in Leicester, added to the quarter-final exit to Saracens here last spring, leaves them perched on an unwanted hat-trick of defeats.
The suggestion might be, following all the off-field departures and key absentees such as Ruan Pienaar, Dan Tuohy, John Afoa, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and Johann Muller, Ulster have regressed since beating Leicester less than a year ago.
Today is their time to refute such a notion.
"That was a different team," rebuts Olding. "I don't fault any player in the squad. We needed a win last year and we got it. We didn't this year. We had a good start and then left our foot off the pedal.
"We trust our players, we trust our game-plan. It's a massive game for Ulster, probably the biggest game we've had in European rugby.
"Everybody wants to be here on this stage, testing yourself against the best in Europe. Toulon are the best team in Europe and they have the best players. There's a great buzz in training.
"We've dug ourselves a little bit of a hole. It was disappointing losing to Leicester; a lot of teams might be happy with getting a bonus point there but we weren't one of them.
"We need a good start. We need to make sure what we're doing is right, nail down our game-plan.
"We know we're better than much of what we produced last weekend. The last half-hour showed what we can do. We need to concentrate to that. It's massive to do it from the start and keep it going for the whole 80 minutes. But that's what we need to do."
Ulster - L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, S Olding; C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; A Warwick, R Best capt, W Herbst; L Stevenson, F van der Merwe, R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, C Ross, N Williams, M Heaney, I Humphreys, D Cave.
Toulon - L Halfpenny; D Armitage, M Bastareaud, M Mermoz, B Habana; M Giteau, M Claasens; A Menini, G Guiardo, C Hayman (capt); J Suta, R Taofifenua; J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage, C Masoe. Reps: C Burden, F Barcella, L Chilachava, B Botha, J O'Connor, A Williams, S Tillous-Borde, J Smith.
Ref - W Barnes (England)
Ulster v Toulon,
Live, Sky Sports 2, 1pm
Ulster v Toulon - guide to the game
Form guide: Ulster WLWWW; Toulon WWLWW.
Match betting: Ulster 4/5, Draw 20/1 Toulon evens.
Handicap: Ulster (-1) 10/11, Draw (-1) 22/1, Toulon (+1) 10/11.
Key man: Paddy Jackson
It has been a pretty traumatic week for the Ulster out-half. He was not alone in being scapegoated for Ulster's horrendous opening in Leicester last weekend.
But then to be left out of the 37-man Ireland squad lobbed salt on to the still gaping wounds. His conversion faux pas was unforgivable. He will have so much to prove today and he must be careful not to mirror his enigmatic opposite number. Game management is the key.
Three things Ulster must do
1 Get Giteau
The extraordinarily gifted Australian is one of the world's finest rugby players and worth the admission fee alone; it is precisely his intimation to display these wares which can give Ulster an opportunity to strike.
Giteau will play incredibly flat so Ulster must tackle like demons and employ searing line speed to restrict his time and space on the ball.
2 Win breakdown
Chris Henry needs to explode into action and this could be the game for him to do it; his direct opponent will be Steffon Armitage, that rotund and immoveable ball of power who often seems to attach himself to the pill with glue.
Henry will need help, from those clearing out on attack and from his fellow defenders on the other side of the ball.
3 Sort out the set-piece
Not to put too fine a point on it - and from what we hear of the Ulster analysis this week, encouragingly they did not - Ulster's lineout was a shambles last weekend.
Tommy Bowe's try demonstrated the immeasurable strength of the set-piece.