Belfast Telegraph

Ulster must focus to cut rivals down to size, says Dwayne Peel

Ulster v Clermont, Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Three, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.45pm

Power play: Clermont’s Fijian flanker Peceli Yato (centre) runs on to score a try against Harlequins
Power play: Clermont’s Fijian flanker Peceli Yato (centre) runs on to score a try against Harlequins
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

At the midway point of Clermont's seven-try demolition of Harlequins on Saturday evening, Brian O'Driscoll and Lawrence Dallaglio were in the BT Sport studio debating just what one does in the face of such an attacking juggernaut.

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"I know," interjected presenter Craig Doyle. "Pull a hamstring."

Les Jaunards, in their return to Europe's top table after a one-year hiatus spent winning the Challenge Cup, were certainly a daunting force, with their pair of flying Fijians Peceli Yato and Alivereti Raka helping themselves to a brace of scores each in a game where out-half Camile Lopez displayed a multitude of strings to his bow.

All that with star wing Damian Penaud missing after having three of his front teeth knocked out in a training ground collision with team-mate Remy Grosso.

A performance that only solidified the notion that this could be the year when the perennial bridesmaids of this competition finally get their hands on the most elusive of silverware after three final defeats.

A real test of Ulster's recently impressive defence awaits when Franck Azema's side return to Belfast on Friday (7.45pm).

It is a fifth meeting between these two sides - in usual French fashion the Top 14 outfit have won both at home and lost both away - but the province's attack coach doesn't see much else that's typical about the side from the Auvergne.

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Ulster coach Dwayne Peel
Ulster coach Dwayne Peel

"We're playing one of the best this week," said Dwayne Peel as his side look to start a European campaign with two wins from two for the first time since 2013-14. "They have consistently been one of the powerhouses of European rugby in recent years.

"It's a massive challenge again now.

"We spoke last year of the prospect of Racing 92 coming here and we spoke of how much of a challenge it was and it's exactly the same this week.

"They are a star-studded team and a big team of big men.

"It's definitely a different challenge. I think they have obviously got quality at nine but they have so much firepower as well, with big runners and big men in wide areas.

"They have big men up front, so that brings a unique challenge really. The likes of Peceli Yato and Fritz Lee and Alivereti Raka, they are big men and we'll have to make sure we're on the money to counter that."

Despite making it to the last-four of this competition only twice in its 25 years, Ulster have frequently shown that, at Kingspan Stadium at least, they are not to be cowed by the reputations of big-name French sides, and Peel has stressed the need for the province to focus upon what they must do rather than fret over what the opposition are capable of producing.

"They are coming off the back of a big win and they've a history in this tournament," said the former scrum-half, who beat Friday's visitors home and away in his days as a Sale Shark.

"The history is the history, but I think the big focus for us is the now.

"For us, we're concentrating on ourselves. We're giving them the respect they deserve but if we play to our potential we can make a good go of it."

That issue of playing to potential has been the topic of much discussion of late, with Ulster's attack not clicking into gear in recent weeks.

Struggling to hold onto the ball for sustained periods, they've made more passes than their opposition only once in their past five games, and after beating Bath, head coach Dan McFarland admitted their recent possession statistics are unsustainable if they hope to progress in this competition.

Both of their tries at The Rec came off counter-attacking ball and required just one recycling of possession for the 14 points. Indeed, just one of their seven visits to the opposition 22 came off the back of what could be described as multi-phase play.

Peel, who seems popular with players and was rewarded with a new two-year deal last season after interest from England and Wales, believes continuity will be the key to Ulster rediscovering their attacking edge.

Despite none of John Cooney, Billy Burns, Stuart McCloskey or Luke Marshall being required by Ireland's World Cup effort, Ulster have yet to name the same 9-10-12-13 combination in consecutive games this season.

"I don't think we're as cohesive as we have been, as cohesive as we could be, but the boys are fighting for each other and working extremely hard," said Peel. "We've had a lot of disruption with the team as well, injuries and so forth, so it's about getting a settled side and getting into it. We have a lot to work on, I know that.

"I thought we started the year particularly well (in attack) but we've just tripped off a bit. That happens and we're working hard to rectify it.

"There's an element of (needing to be) looking after the ball better, but I think having a settled side and having boys back, we have people now for a long stretch, (will help)."

Ulster will, however, be without lock Sam Carter, prop Jack McGrath and wing Rob Lyttle after all three were substituted with injuries in the win over Bath, with no time-frame for their returns issued.

Carter and McGrath both came off in the first half, while Lyttle was withdrawn late in the second half at The Rec.

Fixtures

Friday, November 22: Ulster v Clermont

Saturday, November 23: Harlequins v Bath

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