Friday 24 January 2020

'There is a real electricity about everything in a European week'

Clermont v Ulster, Live, BT Sport 2, 1.0

Will Addison. Photo: Sportsfile
Will Addison. Photo: Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

Even if the man himself has never played there, Will Addison's family can at least tell him what to expect today in arguably the most atmospheric ground in European rugby.

Addison starts at full-back for Ulster against Clermont this afternoon in a Champions Cup Pool 3 shoot-out, but five-and-a-half years ago he had been looking forward to a first visit to the Stade Marcel Michelin with his old club Sale only to end up being saved for the domestic battles around the corner. Such was the Auvergne venue's reputation that his parents made the trip regardless.

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"It's one of those things that you probably only get a chance to do once or twice in your career, to play at the Stade Marcel Michelin," says the four-cap Ireland international.

"Unfortunately, sometimes we had a different preparation for the Heineken Cup at Sale and I think we were already out of the equation by that stage so I was rested for the Premiership game the week after.

"But mum and dad travelled over for that game anyway and they were blown away by the atmosphere.

"Obviously we're in a different sort of situation this time around."

Indeed the stakes are high for both sides today - the winner will leave themselves odds-on for a home quarter-final, with the loser left with only the consolation of a favourable fixture to come and one more crack to secure a last-eight spot as a best runner-up.

Knockout

While both sides will be confident of progression given next week's opponents - Bath are in Belfast while Clermont travel to Harlequins - the boon of hosting a knockout tie gives this clash the feel of make-or-break.

Given those aforementioned circumstances in Sale, today's scenario is just the kind Addison anticipated when he made the switch from England to the land of his mother's birth at the beginning of last season.

"When I initially mooted the move to Peely (Ulster attack coach Dwayne Peel), one thing he said is that the European Cup is treated so differently over here," Addison remembers. "Obviously the PRO14 is our bread and butter, but there's a different intangible feel about the place in a European week.

"There is a real electricity about everything we do day to day in a European week. It's a buzz that I find infectious and absolutely loved from minute one against Leicester at home (in round one) last year. It's special.

"Obviously, having won the competition in '99, it's something we hold dear in this particular place and it's a special thing, but it's only special if you get the wins and we're looking to get an away win at the weekend."

Easier said than done, of course, at a ground whose fearsome reputation hails from a 77-game unbeaten run by Les Jaunards that ended in 2014.

The record on their own patch has not been as imperious domestically since, although they have still managed to win 30 of their last 31 European pool games when hosting.

Coming off the back of defeat to Racing 92 last weekend, Franck Azema's men are in the somewhat alien position of eighth in the Top 14, but their infatuation with Europe is well established and on paper they remain one of only a handful of sides posing a real threat to favourites Leinster.

In the back-three especially, Addison needs no reminder of the calibre of player he'll be coming up against.

"They've got some serious talent. You look at someone like (Alivereti) Raka who has been unbelievable in the World Cup and since. Then Damian Penaud is probably the best young player in the country," he says.

"Someone I know a bit better would be Nick Abendanon, who was brilliant when he played in the Premiership and he's been brilliant since he's gone across to France too.

"Clermont are a team that go into any game, home or away, looking for a win, so they'll be hurting off the back of that loss to Racing. That's the challenge but we're looking forward to it."

Ulster have played just two home European quarter-finals - beating Toulouse on the way to the title in 1999 before qualifying as top seeds in 2014 where they were handed the dubious reward of hosting Saracens in a game lost after current defence coach Jared Payne's red card in the opening minutes. So a third would be quite the prize for Dan McFarland's team.

"For the fans here, it would be special to play in front of them in a quarter-final," he admits. "But you're going away to one of the toughest places in Europe, so we'll take this week first rather than thinking about a home quarter-final."

For the task at hand, McFarland has been able to recall both Marcell Coetzee and Jordi Murphy to the squad in what has the look of a first-choice XV.

Verdict: Clermont

Clermont - N Abendanon; D Penaud, I Toeave, G Moala, A Raka; C Lopez, M Parra; E Falgoux, J Ulugia, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, S Vahaamahina; A Itturria, A Lapandry, F Lee. Reps: Y Behergaray, L Uhila, S Falatea, S Timani, A Fischer, G Laidlaaw, J McIntyre, A Naqalevu.

Ulster - W Addison; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, I Henderson (c); S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee. Reps: A McBurney, E O'Sullivan, T O'Toole, K Treadwell, M Rea, D Shanahan, B Johnston, M Faddes.

REF - M Carley (Eng)

Tale of the tape

Key man

Fritz Lee (No 8). The Samoan is so often the heartbeat of this Clermont team and his battle with Marcell Coetzee will go a long way to deciding which team emerges victorious. A hugely abrasive ball-carrier, Lee brilliantly links the play between the backs and forwards.

How they beat you

Clermont don't often lose at home and rely on that intimidating atmosphere to suffocate opposition teams. Ulster know what to expect, but coping with that as well as the dangerous strike runners which are littered throughout the team will be a tough ask.

How to beat them

As much as the home crowd get behind their team, they can also get on top of them if things aren't going their way. Ulster must find a way to silence the stadium by sticking to their attacking principles which have gotten them this far. Retreating into their shells in a bid to contain Clermont will not be good enough for a precious win.

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