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European Champions Cup Oyonnax v Ulster: Allan Clarke's men have Oyonnax firmly in their firing line

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 08/01/2016

Aftepouring over the video of both Oyonnax and his own side's recent performances, Ulster's forwards coach Allen Clarke is convinced that the set-piece battle will be key to Sunday's Champions Cup clash at the Stade Charles Mathon (1pm kick-off).

Ulster's pack have starred during the province's upturn in fortunes over the last six weeks - with Kyle McCall and Alan O'Connor, two of Clarke's protégés from his time with the academy, to the fore - but there was disappointment last time out in the loss to Munster.

Three kicks from the boot of Ian Keatley, one a drop goal off a scrum won against the head, were enough for Anthony Foley's men to halt a five-game losing skid but Clarke points out that, on the whole, the forwards had delivered as intended.

"Perception is a wonderful thing," he replied when asked if his pack had failed to match recent heights in the set-piece last time out.

"Lineout-wise we had 17 lineouts and had 76 per cent quality ball. Thirteen of them were spot on, two of them were scrappy. Munster had 14 lineouts and we won six of theirs.

"What did hurt us were the critical moments.

Read more: College boy Alan O'Connor is right man for the job

"A scrappy lineout and one scrum where they nicked the ball and got the drop goal; that hurt us.

"The stats, in terms of quality, were good. Stats don't win you matches, unfortunately."

Oyonnax's unlikely rise to Europe's top table has been built upon their impressive form at the Stade Charles Mathon but, after installing an artificial pitch during the off-season, they have struggled for form during this campaign and are second from bottom in the Top 14 and threatened with relegation.

In contrast to Ulster, very much in the mix for the European quarter-finals, new coach Johann Authier's men have nothing to play for but pride with no chance of progression from the pool.

A win against domestic champions Stade Francais in their last home outing, however, tells Clarke all he needs to know about the possibility of an upset.

"For all of us the league is the bread and butter but we can't take anything for granted," says Clarke. "From our analysis, they compete in every aspect.

"If you're loose in any shape or form then they can take advantage. Overall, Oyonnax home performances have been pretty good.

"They beat Stade and they did well last season to qualify for it. We're giving it the respect it deserves.

"We'll focus on our tasks and it'll be a battle up front."

Having already travelled to the Rhone Alps region when the first attempt to play this fixture was postponed back in November, Clarke is looking forward to a return to a town where the rugby club is the hub of activity.

"Over there, rugby is such a part of the culture of that town.

"As soon as you arrive you're very much in a rugby world if you like. It's big for them but it enthuses us as a group as well.

"We're looking forward to the game and putting in a good display that hopefully gets us the win that we so desire," he added.

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