Belfast Telegraph

Toulon v Ulster: French giants remain on trail of the biggest names

By Michael Sadlier

Leaving the flu outbreak aside - which hardly appears to have done great damage to them - it wouldn't really be a standard issue week at Toulon unless we had another big name from the Southern Hemisphere linked to a move to the Mediterranean coast.

And sure enough, the latest player rumoured to be heading Toulon's way after this autumn's World Cup is apparently Springbok star Duane Vermeulen whose original plan to hook up with Bath was said to have fallen through.

If true, the number eight's presence at the Stade Felix Mayol would be yet another big signing at a club already rather well stocked with galatacios from the world game.

And with All Blacks centre Ma'a Nonu already coming in the autumn, along with Northampton star-turn Samu Manoa, outspoken club president and bankroller Mourad Boudjellal has shown no lessening in his desire to continue Toulon's quest to acquire even more top players and by dint of that greater success.

Indeed, such was Boudjellal's enthusiasm to get Manoa - who can play either back row or lock - that he signed him up for four years while another useful acquisition has been Manoa's fellow Saint and Wallaby tighthead prop Salesi Ma'afu along with Clermont's flying Fijian winger Napolioni Nalaga.

Former All Black tighthead prop Carl Hayman has revealed that he intends to retire at season's end as has his fellow former All Black Ali Williams while the succession to head coach Bernard Laporte has already been set out with former Italy and Stade Francais star Diego Dominguez coming on board this time next year to shadow Laporte for six months before taking the reins himself.

It's a high risk move as Dominguez has no experience of top level coaching and will be under pressure to deliver with winning titles now seemingly part of Toulon's raison d'etre.

Already, Boudjellal has moved things up a notch by agreeing to take on Super Rugby side the Sharks next month in a challenge game in what could be the way things ultimately go with the hemispheres crossing swords for a world club title in the future.

And what of this season? They have struggled away from home in the Top 14 but are in third, though Europe is currently the priority and they stand on the cusp of making the quarter-finals, but the French giants haven't really delivered a truly awesome performance in the pool stages so far.

This might just be reserved for Ulster today as the Top 14 champions bid to keep their record intact of never having lost at home since coming into Europe's premier competition in 2010.

And Laporte's squad know they must deliver a bonus point win to keep them firmly in the mix to nail down the preferable home quarter-final. The hosts have a selected a strong line-up with only Matt Giteau missing.

The backline looks awesome with Leigh Halfpenny, Bryan Habana, Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud starting and Nicolas Sanchez bringing direction to it all at out-half.

Up front it's all about power and precision with Xavier Chiocci, Martin Castrogiovanni, Williams, Juan Smith, Steffon Armitage and Chris Masoe.

The bench is notable with Hayman and Marmuka Gorgodze ready to scatter bodies.

Toulon look as if they are ready to unleash a storm.

Belfast Telegraph

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