Clermont a different animal on home soil
European Champions Cup pool five: Clermont Auvergne v Ulster (tomorrow, 3.05pm, Stade Marcel-Michelin, live on Sky Sports 4)
ALL throughout last Saturday the threat of Clermont’s attack loomed large, but perhaps first half stoppage time summed it up best.
Morgan Parra seemed to be happy to end the half but when he fed the ball back to Wesley Fofana and the clock red, the French centre took off through the middle and forced Ulster into some last-ditch defence.
Ulster’s own attacking performance was at times sublime. Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall provided a real force, while Charles Piutau and Paddy Jackson carried the keys, their displays dripping with vision.
They may head the Top 14 but only Bordeaux in the top eight have conceded more points this season. Ulster knew they would get chances, and they took them.
Clermont may not lose too often at home – just 6 of their last 83 home games have ended in defeat – but they will pass up chances again.
Ulster hit a conversion rate of 90 per cent according to their head coach Neil Doak during the week, and they can’t afford for that to dip if they are to return home with points of some description.
That Clermont managed to take two points back to France from their defeat in Ravenhill perhaps said more about them than the actual fact that they lost.
Their hosts did help them, with replacement prop Andy Warwick missing a crucial tackle that allowed Nick Abendanon through for their third try, and Louis Ludik then failing to hold Damien Chouly tight enough to prevent him rolling over and scoring late on.
Those two bonus points may ultimately prove valuable for the French side, though they remain strong favourites to top the pool regardless.
Franck Azéma makes five changes to his side, most notably reintroducing flying winger Noa Nakaitaci, who missed the trip to Belfast through injury.
He takes the place of Dave Strettle, who suffered a dislocated finger early in that game, while there’s also a change at full-back as Isaia Toeava returns to replace Scott Spedding.
Etienne Falgoux comes into the front row, with Arthur Iturria in the second row after recovering from concussion. Behind them, Damien Chouly moves to number 8 as Viktor Kolelishvili comes in for Peceli Yato, who scored the opening try inside 70 seconds last week.
Les Kiss makes just one enforced change to his squad. Franco van der Merwe returns in place of the injured Robbie Diack, who could be out for up to a month.
With neither Andrew Trimble nor Stuart Olding recovering from injury in time, Louis Ludik remains on the left wing, with Tommy Bowe continuing on the right.
Rory Best once more skippers from the front row while Jacob Stockdale continues to await his European debut as he’s named in the backline cover along with Darren Cave and Paul Marshall.
Ulster showed some flashes of brilliance and invention last weekend, and the fact that they’ve gone with the same team is an indication of their belief.
But Clermont are a different animal again at home and stung by defeat, they should force Ulster into a shootout with Bordeaux for second place.
Piutau scored a try to remember in Ulster's last clash with Clermont. Video by @ChampionsCup
Clermont: I Toeava, N Nakaitaci, R Lamerat, W Fofana, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; E Falgoux, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili; A Iturria, S Vahaamahina; V Kolelishvili, A Lapandry, D Chouly Replacements: J Ulugia, T Domingo, M Simutoga, F van der Merwe, P Yato, L Radosavljevic, P Fernandez, A Rougerie
Ulster: C Piutau, T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik, P Jackson, R Pienaar: K McCall, R Best, W Herbst, P Browne, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, R Ah You, K Treadwell, C Ross, P Marshall, D Cave, J Stockdale