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Ulster v Toulon: Craig Gilroy ready to face class acts of champions

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Massive challenge: Craig Gilroy will show respect but won't be starstruck when Ulster take on Toulon at the Kingspan today

Massive challenge: Craig Gilroy will show respect but won't be starstruck when Ulster take on Toulon at the Kingspan today

Massive challenge: Craig Gilroy will show respect but won't be starstruck when Ulster take on Toulon at the Kingspan today

It was really so difficult. But then he has already clocked up some mileage having absorbed the cruel fortunes this game can throw up without any real warning. Still, as Craig Gilroy sat there it was no time to be searching for consolation.

His fortunes had just taken another dip after soaring just a week before. Gilroy had taken his opportunity the previous Saturday, after Andrew Trimble had limped off, and had shown those dazzling feet again to score against the Warriors and, now, seven days later he found himself sitting in the sin-bin at Welford Road and helplessly looking on as Ulster's challenge seemed to be spectacularly unravelling.

He had been shown yellow for taking out Miles Benjamin in the air just after a first half restart, which had seen Ulster concede their second try of the evening to now trail 12-3, and then, as Gilroy watched, the Tigers had crossed for a third score and had pushed things out to 19-3.

"Yes, you really can't do much in the bin and I was just sitting watching the game and just hoping the guys could hold out," Gilroy recalls without wanting to loiter around the memory.

"It was just ill discipline and there is no excuse for it," added the 23-year-old who may now be feeling just a little better about himself after being named in Joe Schmidt's 37-man squad for the autumn internationals while also being only too aware that injuries to Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald have rather assisted his cause.

"I've watched it back," Gilroy says of the yellow card which saw Ulster ship seven points, and very nearly more thanks to a ruled out score, "and I tend to be really cautious about that (challenging for a ball in the air).

"If you can't get up to contest it you just hold your feet wait for him to catch it and come down and then make the tackle, but it was just the way it happened and it almost felt like he (Benjamin) had jumped into me.

"I tried to pull out but it was almost too late and the referee said he had to do it (show yellow) after the earlier warning," he says referring to Tommy Bowe having been pinged for something similar earlier on.

"We had got off to a really good start and maybe sometimes if you start so well you maybe take the foot off and I'm not too sure what happened (to us), we had a few silly mistakes and my yellow card didn't help and we were on the back foot for that period of time and they just capitalised on it," is how Gilroy would prefer to leave his memory of the Leicester result.

But there was the matter of Ulster's comeback to snatch a losing bonus point and also his break which put Darren Cave through a gap and ultimately led to Franco van der Merwe's rather unorthodox try.

"Yes, in the second half we certainly did throw it about a bit more, we got things going and we were getting some front-foot ball and we put some nice phases together.

"It's good though that we have put it to bed, they were just stupid errors that don't happen to us on a weekly basis and I think we can just learn from it and not make those mistakes again," Gilroy adds as he now turns towards the rather fearsome looking challenge of Toulon where he will be facing Delon Armitage as his opposite number.

Mind you, the statistics are rather encouraging as Neil Doak plots a course towards the win Ulster must deliver to keep their interest in Europe in a healthy place.

The home side certainly have a good record against French clubs who come to Belfast but this is Toulon who are the double European champions and current Top 14 title holders. Indeed, but for all their huge array of talent Toulon's five defeats at this level have all been, interestingly, away from home.

Armed with this knowledge, Ulster clearly sense that if they can perform to the level they should be operating at then another victory, and this time against the star-spangled side of French rugby, is within their grasp.

"It's a massive challenge for us and they have a star-studded side on paper," Gilroy rightly admits.

"They have some class guys but we haven't to worry about them, we'll give them respect but it is about us and we want to put in a really good performance in front of our home crowd.

"I've never played against Bryan Habana, he is an unbelievable winger, I've never played against Mathieu Bastareaud and I've never played against Matt Giteau.

"It will be a good challenge and experience and the crowd will get behind us and it is always such a buzz to play in front of them."

Yes, but the result is also pretty essential looking if another European campaign is to lead to the knockout stages. And there's no hiding from that.

"You never want to put too much pressure on yourself but it is a game we want to get something from if we're looking to drive on and get something from Europe," Gilroy admits.

This time he knows that spending 10 minutes watching the action unfold just won't do if Ulster are to topple the champions.

 

Ulster v Toulon: The inside track

Head-to-head

Paddy Jackson v Matt Giteau

Ulster's young out-half has not had the best of weeks after a below-par showing against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road was followed by his omission from Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad for next month's Autumn Internationals.

While disappointed that it does not appear he will be adding to his nine-caps in November, Jackson has shown an ability to respond well to setbacks in the past and Ulster will need him to do so today. Game management will be key throughout the big occasion and the 22-year-old will need to be the most composed man in the Kingspan Stadium.

Former Wallaby star Matt Giteau has arguably been the finest back in Europe over the last 12 months and was voted the Top 14's Player of the Year last season.

Having played at centre during Jonny Wilkinson's time in the south of France, Giteau is now operating at 10 and, although playing much flatter means he offers a different skill-set to England's World Cup hero, he is the key to Toulon's attack.

Rory Best v Guilhem Guirado

If Ulster are to get back to winning ways today then they will need their captain, making his 50th appearance in European competition, to be operating at the peak of his powers.

Crucial to so many aspects of Ulster's play, his work at the breakdown, where often he acts virtually as an auxiliary flanker, will help out Ulster's backrowers who know that it is imperative they deny Toulon the quick ball that their sparkling backline desires. His deliveries out of touch were unsteady last week and Neil Doak will need the set-piece to return to its previous standard if his side are to have any hope of building their attacks from a solid base.

Toulon have a number of hookers at their disposal, but it is Guilhem Guirado who gets the nod from Bernard Laporte this afternoon. The 28-year-old has been capped 23 times by France, but coming into the side along with two new locks, Ulster will look to apply pressure at the set-piece.

Chris Henry v Steffon Armitage

Flanker Chris Henry is Ulster's most effective operator at the breakdown and his work on the ground is going to be so important against the French visitors. If Ulster cannot slow the ball and influence the tempo then their chances of success will be limited.

Personally, having started every Ireland game since the defeat to New Zealand last November, Henry will be looking for a big showing in order to keep the number seven jersey for next month's trio of tests.

Toulon's Steffon Armitage gets the start at openside today. The ERC European Player of the Year was heavily linked with a move back to the Aviva Premiership with Bath in order to gain inclusion in Stuart Lancaster's England squad ahead of the World Cup, it did not materialise.

 

The main threats

The threat from the French and European champions comes from every area of the pitch and Ulster will have struggled to find any discernable weaknesses.

Mourad Boudjellal's millions have assembled rugby's version of the Galacticos and, if Ulster allow them to dictate the game, a backline that contains the likes of Springbok World Cup winner Bryan Habana, Lions' Man of the Series Leigh Halfpenny, French international pair Mathieu Bastareaud and Maxime Mermoz and former England international Delon Armitage will wreak havoc.

With Matt Giteau and Michael Claassens, Toulon have the half-backs to make the most of possession so much will depend on how flankers Steffon Armitage and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe use the breakdown.

After the line-out struggles last week, Ulster may be relieved to see Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha on the bench.

 

The tactics

Head coach Neil Doak spoke during the week about the need for Ulster to be a "nuisance" this afternoon and they will know that they cannot let Toulon's glittering array of talent play the game on their own terms.

Robbie Diack, Chris Henry and Rory Best will be imperative at the breakdown if Ulster are to prevent Bernard Laporte's men from running riot. With Toulon capable of carrying the ball from deep, they have recently made more of an effort to get it wide, and Ulster's defence will need to display the intensity that we saw in the PRO12 victory over Glasgow two weeks ago.

With what is sure to be a raucous crowd behind them, the set-piece will also need improvement if Ulster are to disrupt the rhythm of Toulon and give themselves a platform to attack from.

Likely to see less of the ball than they are accustomed to, Ulster need to make the most of any opportunities that come their way.

 

The verdict

It's only October and yet this has all the hallmarks of a defining moment for Ulster. Yes, Toulon have indulged in some rotation but are still mightily strong and the home side simply must play at a level of consistent dominance from the off to win. The heart says Ulster, the head suggests the visitors will get what they need.

 

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Belfast Telegraph