Rac­ing on a mis­sion but Ul­ster will not yield eas­ily

McFar­land re­calls 13 play­ers rested from last week’s de­feat to Le­in­ster

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP - Gerry Thorn­ley

Kingspan Sta­dium Ul­ster Rugby v Rac­ing 92 Kick-off: 3.15pm Live on BT Sport What’s sel­dom can in­deed be won­der­ful. These two have only met once be­fore but judg­ing by that first meet­ing last Oc­to­ber in La De­fense Arena, when only at­tack mat­tered, then this should be fun.

In their round two meet­ing, true to Dan McFar­land’s word, Ul­ster died with their boots on. They made more line breaks (17-12) and off­loads (18-11), in a game where Rac­ing beat 32 de­fend­ers and Ul­ster 27. It was that kind of en­counter.

With Billy Burns and Finn Rus­sell again pulling the strings this is li­able to be sim­i­lar, but plenty of fac­tors point to it be­ing much closer.

First and fore­most, Ul­ster will play in front of a packed Kingspan Sta­dium, and this com­pe­ti­tion re­peat­edly demon­strates how home ad­van­tage mat­ters. To fur­ther stoke up the at­mos­phere be­fore kick-off, 10 years on Ul­ster’s 1999 Eu­ro­pean Cup win­ning squad will be in­tro­duced to the crowd.

Al­though Ul­ster roared into a 12-3 lead in Paris, there­after they were griev­ously hand­i­capped by their scrum. Ef­fec­tively, Rac­ing scored 27 points off their dom­i­nance there, and they also stole three Ul­ster li­ne­outs.

Yet Ul­ster’s scrum has im­proved im­mea­sur­ably since then, helped by the emer­gence of Eric O’Sul­li­van, as well as Marty Moore’s run of games. Fur­ther­more, Camille Chat and Ce­date Gomes Sa are now side­lined, as well as one of Rac­ing’s try scor­ers that day Teddy Thomas.

Not that the Parisiens don’t have fire­power. They have one player who has made 48 car­ries, 220m, seven line breaks (joint seventh in the tour­na­ment), nine off­loads (fourth) and beaten 15 de­fend­ers (sixth). Re­mark­ably, he’s their out-half, and Rus­sell has also chipped in with 44 points – with a 86 per cent kick­ing ra­tio com­pared to John Cooney’s 63 per cent.

Top form

In Vir­imi Vakatawa, Juan Imhoff and Simon Zebo they have play­ers in top form. Zebo has de­vel­oped the kind of un­der­stand­ing with Rus­sell that he once en­joyed with Conor Mur­ray, and not hav­ing given up on his Ir­ish hopes, will again want to make a point.

Zebo shifts to the wing as Brice Dulin re­turns in one of three changes from last week’s win over Agen, with Maxime Machenaud re­turn­ing at scrumhalf and Ben Tamei­funa re­places Gomes Sa. Don­nacha Ryan is still side­lined.

An­tonie Claassen and the of­fload­ing Leone Nakarawa, aka Mr Oc­to­pussy, will also give them go-for­ward mo­men­tum un­less Ul­ster can con­tain these two.

Ul­ster have de­vel­oped a good team un­der Dan McFar­land, and much more quickly than might have been rea­son­ably ex­pected. McFar­land re­calls 13 play­ers rested from last week’s de­feat by Le­in­ster, with only Alan O’Con­nor and Sean Reidy re­tained, and the fit­ness of Ja­cob Stock­dale, who has scored in ev­ery round and will win his 50th Ul­ster cap, is huge.

On the other wing their ex­cit­ing 21-year-old Sevens flyer from En­niskillen, Robert Baloucoune, will make his Euro de­but after four ap­pear­ances in the Pro14.

The 10-point haul against the Scar­lets has earned them a real shot at qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the knock-out stages for the first time in five sea­sons. Top­ping the pool re­mains a long shot. They’ would need a bonus point win by a mar­gin of 33 points or more to go above Rac­ing on the head to head.

Guar­an­teed place

Yet a win here and again in Le­ices­ter next Saturday would guar­an­tee a place in the last eight. Even a de­feat, es­pe­cially with a bonus point, would not scup­per their chances.

Pos­ses­sion will again be a key fac­tor, and the ab­sence of Iain Hen­der­son is a blow. Al­though Mar­cell Coet­zee and Stuart McCloskey can take up the car­ry­ing man­tle, they will still miss Hen­der­son’s car­ry­ing, tack­ling – par­tic­u­larly his choke tack­ling – and his li­ne­out skills.

Re­call Jo­hann van Graan’s de­scrip­tion of Rac­ing’s de­fen­sive li­ne­out as one of the best two in the world, along with the All Blacks, and how that was borne out in last sea­son’s semi-fi­nal.

Leone Nakarawa, Wences­las Lau­ret and Bap­tiste Chouzenou pose a huge threat to the Rory Best throw, and with a rea­son­able sup­ply of ball Rus­sell, Zebo and co can dis­sect any de­fence.

Fur­ther­more, few teams come back more mo­ti­vated than the beaten fi­nal­ists. Their Top 14 form has been patchy, but Rac­ing have re­served four of their best per­for­mances for Europe.

They know that a win here would se­cure qual­i­fi­ca­tion while set­ting up a home game against the Scar­lets with which to se­cure a top two seed­ing. Rac­ing look like a team on a Euro mis­sion.

Zebo has de­vel­oped the kind of un­der­stand­ing with Rus­sell that he once en­joyed with Conor Mur­ray

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