Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Stevenson rolls up sleeves for competitive win in France

Bayonne in August was, well, rather on the hot side.



Hardly surprising really and it didn’t look to be a particularly promising place to be when Ulster turned up in the south-west corner of France for their opening pre-season friendly.

It was Mark Anscombe’s first game in charge and the chances of a positive outcome were low and hardly that relevant in what was, primarily, a building exercise.

Yet his rather callow squad, which was missing its Ireland contingent, achieved something quite unexpected when Neil McComb’s late try sealed the win.

Though barely even a footnote alongside Ulster’s rather more meaningful progress this season, the 20-15 result ensured a first ever win on French soil, with it now only being referenced as the aim of actually triumphing in a competitive game over there dominating all thoughts.

Second row Lewis Stevenson was involved from the bench that evening in the Basque country and being on the right side of the result may have slightly made up for being on the losing team back in January 2010 when he was also benching for his then club Harlequins who went down 33-21 to Toulouse in a Heineken Cup pool game.

“Yes, we’ve won in France before, albeit in a pre-season,” the 28-year-old who has just been called up to the expanded Ireland training squad, says.

“And hopefully we can draw from some of that experience on Saturday,” he adds without reading too much meaning into that lung-burning occasion in Bayonne.

“France is a brilliant place to play rugby, though, and it’s a whole new culture and experience over there.”

He gets a fourth successive start since returning at the end of last month for the Munster trip, after spending two months nursing a medial ligament injury, and with both Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy sidelined, Stevenson’s importance to Mark Anscombe’s squad is being continually amplified.

Indeed his consistency, and current fitness, has been rewarded with what could well be a game for the Irish Wolfhounds against England Saxons next week in Galway.

He was warming the bench last January when Ulster came so close to ending Clermont’s awesome home record.

But Stevenson is now understandably eager to roll up his sleeves in the bid for an all-important first competitive win in France, with a bonus point victory allowing already-qualified Ulster to secure a home quarter-final without having to rely on other results.

“Though we’ve already qualified there’s still a massive hurdle there for us and it’s important that we go there and do a job.

“I think it’s a really exciting game for us and if we go and get that bonus point we get a home quarter and no team in the quarters would want to come to Ravenhill,” Stevenson said.

He left the bench for the closing stages of Ulster’s 41-17 win over Castres in October’s opening pool clash at Ravenhill, when the vital bonus point was grabbed by Ruan Pienaar in the final minute, and Stevenson is convinced the French side will have a somewhat different outlook on Saturday.

“You go to play in France and you face a team with a different mentality to when they’re away from home,” he maintains.

“For Castres, being at home is a whole different ball game and they’ve only lost once this season at home.

“They are a massively physical team and are a true French team in that respect.

“They have a huge set of forwards and pace in the backs and so we’ve really got to front up.”

And as for going all-out early on to get the four tries, the second row is, understandably, not too enthusiastic at such a notion, especially as it goes against the grain when games are won, first and foremost, by establishing patterns and control.

“I don’t think we’re going to go out and chase it too much and end up playing helter-skelter rugby.

“We’ve got to win the game first and then, maybe, the bonus point will come.

We’ve got to be confident and just play our game. Hopefully we’ll pick up what we need.”

They’re already through, but much still hinges on avoiding defeat.