Belfast Telegraph

Toulon v Ulster: Ulstermen chop and change but hopes of a miracle are slim

By Michael Sadlier

This one is just crying out for Ulster to produce their own 'miracle match' and lay claim to the template forged by Munster in the way the southern province have achieved the unthinkable in the past.

And with the odds hugely stacked against them downing the colours of the European champions, never mind somehow managing to avoid exiting the competition in their penultimate group game, what better time for Ulster to play without restraint and show Toulon's galaxy of star (and possibly ill) names that they can go toe-to-toe with anyone, anywhere.

It sounds like a plan, to express themselves freely with all the usual pressure missing, and maybe an appropriate way to mark Darren Cave's 150th appearance for the province, but the reality of the situation would appear to dictate otherwise.

Unless something extraordinary unfolds at the Stade Felix Mayol today, Neil Doak's squad will be walking off the pitch after a fourth defeat from five games in the Champions Cup and with all spurious notions of mathematical escape from bowing out at the pool stages well and truly binned.

Toulon have turned their home ground into a European fortress and have not lost there to anyone other than Top 14 opposition since 2009 when Bristol of all people turned them over in the Challenge Cup. Back then, though, they did not possess anything like the playing resources, and indeed success, that they have behind them now.

As Ulster found to their cost when hosting the back-to-back European champions, their ability to produce shimmering power plays even when they are not at full throttle is enough to sink most sides they encounter as they did to the tune of 23-13 at the Kingspan Stadium back in October.

Though there has been much talk of illness in the Toulon camp, the very idea of them folding up their tents, or being complacent, still seems a highly fanciful notion.

If Ulster are to make a real game of this it will be as much about their attitude approach rather than how groggy some of the Toulon players might be feeling.

The word is that Doak has given his side carte blanche to attack to gain an early toehold in the game. And with Jared Payne at full-back they will hope he can find gaps with that bit more time he may have to weigh things up from 15.

Doak has made seven changes - two of them injury enforced - and two positional switches from the side which beat Treviso in the PRO12 last Sunday with, as expected, Rory Best and Tommy Bowe missing the trip as well as Craig Gilroy, while Dan Tuohy and Wiehahn Herbst are still nursing their respective injury issues.

In the backline, Payne is at full-back, with Louis Ludik moving to the right wing, while Michael Allen is brought in on the left flank.

Up front, there is an entirely new front row of Andy Warwick, Rob Herring and Bronson Ross while Mike McComish gets a rare start at openside flanker, with Clive Ross moving across to blindside, and Franco van der Merwe back in the engine room.

The front row - with Ross making his first European start and keeping the experienced Declan Fitzpatrick benched - will certainly be under pressure in the furnace of the scrums and the situation for the back row, with Robbie Diack being benched and Roger Wilson leading the side, hardly looks much more promising.

Ulster's intentions are entirely based on getting front-foot ball from their forwards and, again, today represents a huge step up for second row Alan O'Connor.

Much will also depend on how half-backs Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson fare and whether they can bring any control to proceedings if the hopes of a miracle performance are to have any substance.

It all looks like far too tall an order.

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