Ulster's Ian Madigan key figure in Champions Cup clash with mighty Toulouse
MUCH has changed in the Ulster rugby landscape since Ian Madigan top scored with 10 points from the boot in a 26-22 European win for Bordeaux-Begles over the northern province in 2017 at Kingspan Stadium.
The Irish international has, of course, since joined Ulster as a summer recruit after a subsequent spell at Bristol Bears, and will be a key figure in tonight's Champions Cup clash with mighty Toulouse at the same venue.
Expectations are much higher under Dan McFarland who is now in charge following the departure of Les Kiss who was at the helm in the defeat by Madigan's former team which saw Ulster finish bottom of their pool.
Tonight, they begin their campaign in a bid to reach the quarter-finals for a third successive season and avenge a 36-8 Euro defeat by Toulouse in France in September.
Madigan obviously has an inside track on rugby in that part of the world but it's no secret that Toulouse are among the best teams in Europe.
They have a star-studded line up at their disposal, including Antoine Dupont, who masterminded France's recent Six Nations win over Ireland.
"They probably have one of the best scrum-halves in the world in Dupont, who is very unpredictable in what he does," said Madigan, who'll be partnered by Dupont's opposite number John Cooney in the Ulster half-back line tonight.
"He's a guy who picks up a lot from the base of rucks and tries to fish out defenders.
"He can pull defenders out, create indecision and then he's got great guys running great lines off him.
"If you let him play on top of you and you give him time then the guys around him will look really good. The challenge will be taking his time away and taking his options away.
"If you sit back off these guys and give them time, it just means their options are open to them for much longer.
"If we get up in their face and take their time away, we feel we'll be able to play on top of them."
Five hundred fans will be in the stadium tonight and Madigan insists Ulster must press home their home advantage despite the crowd restrictions.
"That's been a big focus for us this week. We're the team that's playing at home and we'll be looking to step up physically and put these guys under pressure who've got great skills," added the 31-year-old.
"In saying that, we do really respect them but, come Friday night, we'll be prepared to go toe-to-toe with them."
Ulster have won eight successive PRO14 games but Madigan admits playing against a side like Toulouse will be a big step up in class.
"To be going into Europe with the confidence of going well in our domestic league is huge," he added.
"We're under no illusions that we're coming into a very challenging period - we're going to be playing one of the best sides in France first.
"That's followed by one of the top sides in the Gallagher Premiership (Gloucester), then three really tough inter-pros.
"So while we've gone well in this first block, we're under no illusions that we're going to have to step up to beat some of the teams we're coming up against in this second block.
"But yeah, you'd much rather be off the back of a win streak and feeling like there's confidence in your game than going into this block feeling like you've got to find form.
"We've got a got a good foundation we can build on, and that's what we'll be looking to do."