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'They have superstar players who can make superstar plays' - Dan McFarland gearing up for Clermont clash


Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Photo by Ben Evans/Sportsfile

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Photo by Ben Evans/Sportsfile

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Photo by Ben Evans/Sportsfile

Dan McFarland would rather not reveal how Ulster are shaping up ahead of the most formidable away trip in Europe this week.

Then again, the Ulster coach would much rather prefer to know what exactly it is he cannot reveal.

They say no news is good news – and others still that no journalists is even better news, confound them – but for McFarland’s side, the precise opposite is the case.

They have no news about whether their World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen is available. Nor their inspirational captain, Iain Henderson. Nor indeed a fit and able hooker who might be able to toss the ball in their general direction at lineout time.

After ending Saturday’s shambolic defeat to the one-paced Ospreys with a prop lobbing in the pills from the touchline, Ulster are in a decidedly dodgy state of preparedness.

Not the place to be as they prepare to lock horns with a perennially formidable Clermont outfit now led by the man, Jono Gibbes, who caused such a storm up north when walking out on the province three years ago.

“It’s a quite complicated one this week so we’ll leave that one until Wednesday,” says McFarland, not of the confounded Gibbes, but of his injury crisis, particularly at hooker, before repeating the answer when a different question is asked about Covid-stricken Vermuelen.

“Hypothetically, it would definitely be great to have him and if he were fit and up and running,” he sighs.

Contests between this pair have leaned definitively towards home advantage being key in the previous three times they have been paired together; when they first met, Ulster propelled themselves all the way to their most recent final appearance.

McFarland was in charge two seasons ago when the spoils were again shared; with only four pool games in the revamped competition, the margins are even tighter this season, compounding the sense of unease as his side decamp to the over-bearing Marcel Michelin.

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“It was tough,” says the Englishman, naturally more inclined to recall the positive home outing. “We were reminiscing earlier. We did a lot of good that day.

“We scored a good maul try. John Cooney scored an excellent individual try as well and we had to put in some unbelievable defence. Robert Baloucoune’s try-saving tackle on George Moala was a particular highlight.

“We kept them out of our area for long periods although they scored right at the end of the game as well.

“The away game was a game we could and should have won. Sorry, could have won. It was extremely tough out there, paying in that environment is absolutely fantastic but the challenge is huge.

“On both occasions we have played against them, they have demonstrated that they have individuals who can break the game open and create something from nothing. In the first game that we played here,

“And then over there, we had a couple of moments in and around half-time that put us on the back foot. We obviously scored a great try early on in that game to put us 10-3 up.

“Listen, they’re a great team. They have a lot of superstar players who are able to make superstar plays.

“That makes the task for us one of team-work and ensuring that we can bring collective pressure with the way that we play and put that pressure on to them. It’s a brilliant task but it’s a very, very difficult one.

“I can’t over-emphasise the quality of the challenge that they pose. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve been able to bring in some of their star backs in Alivereti Raka, Damian Penaud and Camille Lopez. So we know the challenge that we have got and we’re really looking forward to it."

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