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Franco sees silver lining among French storm clouds

By Michael Sadlier

Published 18/12/2015

It's pretty much been the case since last week's final whistle with the euphoria at trouncing Toulouse being rapidly dampened down and replaced by the notion that a backlash is coming.

To whack the French giants by 38-0 - and in doing so keep the four times European champions scoreless for the first time in Europe - was more than mere humiliation for Thierry Dusautoir et al and a mighty storm, to not only restore their shredded pride but also stay alive in the competition, is surely heading Ulster's way on Sunday in the return tie at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Franco van der Merwe smiles at the prospect of going in search of a result against a super-charged opposition, and a raucous home support baying for Ulster blood, and accepts what is coming with confidence that their fury can be tamed.

"That's the big thing, we know it's coming," says the South African second row of facing a Toulouse outfit gunning for revenge.

Though the French side are renowned off-loaders there seems little doubt that their huge pack will attempt to batter Ulster into submission early on with the early collisions doubtless setting the tone. With that in mind, Van der Merwe is not for taking a backward step. "It's not a secret, we know they've got a big pack, with big ball-carriers, and we know we have to stop them," he acknowledges.

"Once their front five start running with the ball it gets very difficult and they will put a lot of emphasis on their scrum, their maul and first phase.

"But I think we're as well prepared for this as we can be and we're also a very fit side and we know we need to perform for 80 or even 85 minutes," adds the one-time capped Springbok whose Ulster contract is up for renewal.

He does, of course, know what it is like to play in France having experienced being on the end of their own tanking when Toulon racked up 60 points against Van der Merwe and co last January.

"I won't forget that," he says.

"That was a really tough game and, yes, they scored a lot of points against us."

He's, naturally, not too keen on lingering over Ulster's visit to Stade Mayol even though they did impressively manage a try bonus amidst the wreckage.

"One thing I've learnt (since coming) over here is that home advantage is really quite a big advantage," Van der Merwe adds while addressing the difficulty getting a clean sweep from back-to-back European encounters.

"And that's French rugby. You can beat them one weekend quite convincingly but the next weekend you can get that same score against you.

"I know it's going to be extremely tough in Toulouse, but we can take a lot of confidence from our performance last weekend."

The odds are certainly stacked against Ulster with Toulouse unbeaten at home this season and the province never having triumphed there, their best result being a 35-35 draw back in 2000. Another worrying stat is that Ulster have only been victorious three times in both European back-to-back games over 16 seasons.

Countering that, they at least know how to win in France having done so at both Castres and, most impressively, when taking a disbelieving Montpellier apart in autumn 2013.

Allied to that is the fact that Toulouse were downed at home last season by Bath and, most notably, fell to Connacht the season before which all helps fuel the notion that Stade Ernest Wallon isn't quite the fortress that it may seem.

You wonder if the comprehensive nature of Ulster's win last Friday will have actually allowed them to learn much of Toulouse's game, but Van der Merwe insists that he and his team-mates did absorb some useful pointers and that, anyway, so much analysis has been done on their previous games that they feel reasonably comfortable with permutations to the French game-plan.

Still, he knows that there will be abundant fury unleashed on Sunday and that Ulster really want to take something away from the game to carry into their rearranged meeting at struggling Oyonnax in a few weeks' time.

"It's about us having the right attitude, it's about us bringing that passion and energy we've got and it's about us also bringing the structure in the way we've been coached this season," he states.

"For all the talk it's just about performing on Sunday and really performing well."

Weather the Toulouse storm and anything is possible.

Belfast Telegraph

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