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European Champions Cup Ulster v Toulouse: Les Kiss isn't fazed by French star power


Top quality: Thierry Dusautoir is just one of a number of star players in the Toulouse side that will be aiming to topple Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium

Top quality: Thierry Dusautoir is just one of a number of star players in the Toulouse side that will be aiming to topple Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Top quality: Thierry Dusautoir is just one of a number of star players in the Toulouse side that will be aiming to topple Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium

Toulouse arrive at the Kingspan this evening (7.45pm kick-off) having named a squad brimming with star quality and Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss is well aware of the talent at the disposal of his opposing directeur sportif Fabien Pelous.

While the four-time European champions have not extended their record tally of trophies since 2010, the side from the south of France are once again in the upper reaches of the Top 14 after last week's win over Oyonnax.

Not only that, there remains a wealth of Test experience in their ranks provided by the likes of Thierry Dusautoir, Toby Flood, Luke McAlister, Louis Picamoles and Vincent Clerc.

With so many options - the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy and Gurthro Steenkamp aren't even included in the match-day 23 - the biggest struggle in Ulster's video preparation this week was discerning just how and who Toulouse will play.

Kiss said: "They are predictably unpredictable. They have a massive squad that is full of internationals, so that gives them some really good options all over the park. They're second in the Top 14 so it's a huge challenge for us."

Speaking earlier in the week, Kiss cited the example of an opposition back-row, that will include Dusautoir, Picamoles and young France Under-20 international Yacouba Camaraas as an example of the French side's startling strength in depth.

"When you look at the back-row, Harinordoquy, Picamoles and Tala Grey, that seems obvious but they've got other options around the edges in that position," he said.

"Back three... there are options there everywhere."

The tight five is no less intimidating with the familiar face of Samoan international Census Johnston and Vasil Kakovin propping down either side of Corey Flynn, the 15-times capped All Black hooker who earned a World Cup winners' medal in 2011 thanks to a solitary appearance at the tournament.

Maintaining a willingness to attack from deep inside their own territory, Toulouse have a potent back-line that if allowed to run can cause Ulster all sorts of problems.

With Sebastien Bezy the only uncapped member of a backline that has amassed over 250 international appearances, their playmaking potential is evident.

Full-back Clement Poitrenaud has plenty of experience, and indeed was a scorer of two tries when the teams last met almost nine years ago. He is joined in the back-three by French internationals Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard.

An eye-catching set of outside backs, even with star man Yoann Huget still on the sidelines following a cruciate ligament injury.

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With the visitors opting to select former Leicester Tiger and English international Flood No.10 at inside centre, Toulouse have picked twin playmakers - a tactic that has served the likes of Australia and Argentina so well of late - with former All Black Luke McAlister chosen at out-half.

In addition to the speed of Gael Fickou in the No.13 jersey, Toulouse are well suited to running rugby.

"Will they back themselves from everywhere on the pitch?" said Kiss.

"They do a lot but there are other games when they kick the ball away.

"They're merging their game into an adaptive beast; they play either way quite well. I think that unpredictability, from selection to style, is a real danger."

While adamant that the campaign will not be defined by the result of the season's first two European games, Kiss stressed that his side are far from intimidated.

"The boys have shown great character and we'll step up," he said. "Hopefully the conditions are good and supporters will see a quality game."

Despite the strength of the opposition, Ulster are a formidable foe in the confines of the Kingspan Stadium and, before the defeat to Toulon in October of last year, five consecutive Top 14 visitors came to Belfast and left having suffered defeat.

The province will believe they can pull off another memorable European win but their continued involvement surely depends on it.

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