Fired-up Ferris desperate to end French hoodoo and book quarter-final spot
LAST week's thumping of Leicester at Ravenhill was a proclamatory performance by Brian McLaughlin's Ulster, a display that, after years of inconsistency, said: "We mean business."
It was also an occasion to add fuel to the debate regarding the use, and importance of, overseas players in the Irish game. Ulster's five-man foreign contingent had to front up against the Tigers and they did to a man, continuing to form the backbone of the side that will take on Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin this afternoon (3.40).
If Ulster make it to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, it will have been spring-boarded by the significant input of their non-Irish contingent and will lift the entire squad. The flip side is that the overseas brigade are keeping promising Irish-qualified players such as Paul Marshall, Adam D'Arcy and Willie Faloon off the side and affecting their representative careers in the process (none of that trio made the Wolfhounds squad this week). Which is better for Irish rugby?
Either way, Ulster's magnificence last week deserves to be built upon to ensure European involvement, in either Heineken or Challenge Cup, after the Six Nations.
They face a formidable challenge against a Clermont side that has won its last 38 matches at home, while Ulster are seeking their first win in France. McLaughlin makes just one, injury-enforced, change to his team, Ian Whitten coming into the centre for the unfortunate Darren Cave, who has been ruled out of action for six weeks.
Clermont make a whopping 10 alterations to the outfit that put 82 points on Aironi last weekend and there are names in the line-up to make the most ardent of Ulster supporters blanche.
Lee Byrne, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Julein Malzieu form a lethal back three, Aurelien Rougerie is a leader in midfield and Morgan Parra an accomplished director at scrum-half. In the pack, Lionel Faure will put it up to John Afoa, Julien Pierr and Nathan Hines form an accomplished second row, and Julien Bonnaire provides athleticism and line-out ball from No 8.
Adding to Ulster's daunting assignment is Clermont's determination to land the Heineken Cup title after years where their results in the competition have not equated to the talent at their disposal. Having finally ended their Top 14 hoodoo in 2010, after losing 10 finals, Europe has become a priority and they are further driven by the need to atone for a weak opening day performance in Ravenhill.
Clermont had Ulster on the ropes in that contest but slacked off mentally and allowed the D'Arcy-inspired home side to snatch the victory. It leaves them driven to chase the four-try bonus point that should guarantee them a quarter-final, where they would start favourites whoever they play.
This point has not been lost on flanker Stephen Ferris, superb last week, who knows that victory is the only way Ulster can be certain of making the quarter-finals for the second year in a row.
"We are playing well at present, but it is all about keeping the momentum going. Clermont will be on a high after their big win last week," said Ferris.
"This is definitely the biggest game that I've faced in my Ulster career. I missed out on last year's quarter-final tie against Northampton, but I certainly got a taste of what it was all about. Now I just want a piece of that action, I want to play in the knockout stages.
"A while ago, we were wondering if we could win in England, we have achieved that against Bath twice; then we won on the road in Wales. So this is the last big one, to win on French soil," he added.
"It is going to be very difficult but I feel we have the players to do the business. We have World Cup winners and vast experience and if I was a player looking at our team, I would be a little bit reticent in going out to face them. The time is right for us to win in France."
Ferris is correct in that Ulster have never been in a better position to achieve their first win on French soil but it hinges on being able to reproduce the intensity and clinical finishing they showed in front of their own supporters against Leicester.
Looking at the Clermont line-up, it is hard to see them slipping up at home but Ulster are capable of getting a losing bonus point, which would leave them with the chance of having something to play for in Europe come the spring.
CLERMONT -- L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela, M Parra; L Faure, B Kayser, C Ric, J Pierre, N Hines, G Vosloo, J Bardy, J Bonnaire. Reps: T Paulo, V Debaty, D Kotze, J Cudmore, A Lapandry, K Senio, B James, R King.
ULSTER -- S Terblanche; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyriacou, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, W Faloon, P Marshall, N Spence, A D'Arcy.
REF -- D Pearson (England).
Clermont v Ulster
Live, Sky Sports 1, 3.40