Toulon v Ulster inside track: Where the game could be won or lost
Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key battles and showdowns in today’s massive European tussle.
Steffon Armitage v Mike McComish
Robbie Diack is given a rest, the Ireland flanker dropping to the bench, meaning that Clive Ross switches from openside to blindside and Mike McComish comes into the seven jersey for only his second appearance of the season.
Having appeared as a substitute in the game with Zebre, McComish has been a more frequent contributor for Ballymena than Ulster of late but is handed a daunting assignment.
Opposed by Steffon Armitage, McComish will be going up against last season’s European Player of the Year and will be responsible for ensuring that the former England international is not allowed to terrorise the breakdown.
Almost impossible to shift when he gets over the ball, Armitage — once again linked with a return to Test rugby — will relish the chance to rack up the turnovers against Ulster’s beleaguered back-row. A powerful runner, he will also threaten if given an opportunity with ball in hand.
Martin Castrogiovanni v Andy Warwick
Andy Warwick replaces Callum Black in the Ulster number one jersey and his battle with Martin Castrogiovanni highlights the differing levels of experience available to both coaches.
Tight-head ‘Castro’ has won over 100 caps for his adopted nation, Italy, and has enjoyed a wealth of success both with Toulon and Leicester Tigers. Warwick, meanwhile, is making just a fourth appearance in the Champions Cup and only recently signed his first full contract.
A hugely promising player, Warwick has still ceded game time to Callum Black in recent weeks and will be keen to make an impression.
With Neil Doak forced into fielding an unusual looking front-row thanks to Wiehahn Herbst’s hamstring injury and Rory Best being rested, Warwick’s role in steadying the scrum will be important as, on the other side of the pack, Bronson Ross could be in for a tough afternoon against French international Xavier Chiocci.
The Ballymena man will know that Castrogiovanni will provide a stern test of his set-piece credentials.
Leigh Halfpenny v Jared Payne
Given his transition into the centre, this is the first time that Jared Payne has started a game for Ulster at full-back since the ill-fated Heineken Cup quarter-final with Saracens in April, in which the Kiwi was sent off after just five minutes.
While the debate over his best position continues, many will be pleased to see him back in the 15 jersey where he undoubtedly has put in his best performances for the province.
Having returned only last week from an injury sustained when picking up his first Ireland cap against South Africa in November, a little rustiness may be expected but he will have to be on his game defensively against a potent Toulon unit.
Wearing 15 for Toulon will be the Welsh star Leigh Halfpenny. While he had a shaky start to his career in the south of France — at one point there was talk his contract could be torn up — the former Cardiff Blues man has shown signs that he is edging back to his 2013 vintage and he can punish Ulster with his boot from all angles.
The main threats
As has been alluded to by the Ulster camp, the threat from the Toulon side can come from anywhere.
With the quality of Leigh Halfpenny, Drew Mitchell and Bryan Habana in the back three, they possess supreme finishers while the centre pairing of Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud combines both brain and brawn.
Without Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy or Tommy Bowe, the visitors are deprived of their threat out wide but the real issues may come in the backrow where there is simply no comparison between the two units fielded.
Juan Smith and Chris Masoe have represented the Springboks and All Blacks respectively while Steffon Armitage won Player of the Year honours last season.
Ulster have Roger Wilson at eight packing down in between Clive Ross and Mike McComish, two players with next to no track record at this level.
Given the little at stake for Ulster, their best bet, with the pressure off, may be to at least give it a go.
There was much to like about the way Ulster played against Treviso in the first 40 minutes, and fans will at least be encouraged by an attempt to replicate that style this afternoon.
The lengthy list of absentees no doubt makes that more difficult but with the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding and Jared Payne behind the pack, they should still be capable of occasionally exciting rugby.
Much will depend, of course, on the battle at the breakdown and Toulon will know that if they can slow Ulster’s ball with the frequency that they should be capable of, then those backs will not have much joy.
With the home side unable to afford a European slip-up, expect a pragmatic and well-executed approach while the game is in the balance.
Stat attack: Of Ulster’s starting line-up, only South African Ruan Pienaar has more than 10 caps of Test experience. In contrast, 12 of the side sent out by Bernard Laporte have hit double digits for their country.
A bit of previous
Toulon’s last six results:
Toulon 32 Racing Metro 23**
Montpellier 16 Toulon 12**
Stade Francais 30 Toulon 6**
Toulon 30 Lyon 6**
Toulon 23 Leicester Tigers 8*
Leicester Tigers 25 Toulon 21*
Ulster’s last six results:
Treviso 20 Ulster 24**
Leinster 24 Ulster 11**
Ulster 13 Connacht 10**
Ospreys 31 Ulster 20**
Scarlets 22 Ulster 13*
Ulster 24 Scarlets 9*