Saturday 18 November 2017

Best, Bowe rested as Ulster look for Stade Mayol miracle

Ulster head coach Neil Doak
Ulster head coach Neil Doak

Michael Sadlier

THIS one is just crying out for Ulster to produce their own 'miracle match' and lay claim to the template forged by Munster.

What better time for Ulster to play without restraint and show Toulon's galaxy of star names that they can go toe to toe with anyone, anywhere?

Unless something extraordinary unfolds at the Stade Felix Mayol later today, Neil Doak's squad will suffer a fourth defeat from five games in the Champions Cup, their mathematical hopes of survival well and truly severed.

Toulon have turned their home ground into a European fortress - they have not lost there to any foreign opposition since 2009.

As Ulster found to their cost when losing 23-13 to the back-to-back European champions at home in October, their ability to produce shimmering power plays even when they are not at entirely full throttle is enough to sink most sides.

Though there has been much talk of illness in the Toulon camp, the idea of them folding up their tents, or being complacent, seems highly fanciful.

If Ulster are to make a game of this it will be as much about their attitude approach rather than how groggy Toulon might be feeling.

The word is that Doak has given his side carte blanche to attack to gain an early toehold in the game, with Jared Payne at full-back.

Doak (above) has made seven changes and two positional switches, from the side which beat Treviso with Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy missing the trip, while Dan Tuohy and Wiehahn Herbst nurse injuries.

Louis Ludik switches to the right wing, while Michael Allen is brought in on the left flank. Up front, there is an entirely new front row of Andy Warwick, Rob Herring and Bronson Ross, who makes his first European start.

Mike McComish gets a rare start at openside flanker, with Clive Ross moving across to blindside, and Franco van der Merwe back at lock.

The front-row will certainly be under pressure in the scrums and the situation for the back-row, with Roger Wilson leading the side, hardly looks much more promising.

Ulster's intentions are entirely based on getting front-foot ball from their forwards and, again, today represents a huge step up for second-row Alan O'Connor.

Much will also depend on how half-backs Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson fare and whether they can bring any control to proceedings if the hopes of a miracle performance are to have any substance.

It all looks like far too tall an order.

Verdict: Toulon

Toulon - L Halfpenny; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Mermoz, B Habana; N Sanchez, S Tillous-Borde; X Chiocci, G Guirado, M Castrogiovanni; J Suta, A Williams; J Smith, S Armitage, C Masoe (c). Reps: J-C Orioli, F Fresia, C Hayman, M Gorgodze, R Wulf, D Smith, E Escande, R Taofifenua.

Ulster - J Payne; L Ludik, D Cave, S Olding, M Allen; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring, B Ross; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; C Ross, M McComish, R Wilson (c). Reps: J Andrew, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, R Diack, P Marshall, I Humphreys, M Heaney.

Ref - L Hodges (WRU)

Toulon v Ulster,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 3.15

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