Belfast Telegraph

Ulster will relish heat of Clermont cauldron, says Addison

Ulster full-back Will Addison hasn't been ruled out of action yet
Ulster full-back Will Addison hasn't been ruled out of action yet
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Even if the man himself has never played there, Will Addison's family can at least tell him what to expect today in arguably the most atmospheric ground in European rugby.

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Starting at full back for Ulster against Clermont this afternoon in a Champions Cup Pool 3 shoot-out (1pm kick-off), Addison had been looking forward to a first visit to the Stade Marcel Michelin some five and half years ago with his old club Sale only to end up being saved for the domestic battles looming round the corner. Such was the Auvergne venue's reputation his mum and dad made the trip regardless.

"It's one of those things that you probably only get a chance to do once or twice in your career, to play at the Stade Marcel Michelin," said the four-cap Irish international. "It's something I'm looking forward to.

"Unfortunately sometimes we had a different preparation for the Heineken Cup at Sale and I think we were already out of the equation by that stage so I was rested for the Premiership game the week after.

"But mum and dad travelled over for that game (anyway) and they were blown away by the atmosphere.

"Obviously we're in a different sort of situation this time around."

Indeed the stakes are high for both sides today, the winner leaving themselves odds on for a home quarter-final with the loser left only with the consolation of a favourable fixture to come and one more crack to secure a last eight spot as a best runner-up.

While both will be confident of progression given next week's opponents - Bath in Belfast for Ulster while Clermont travel to Harlequins - are long since out of the running, the boon of hosting a knock-out tie gives this clash the feel of make-or-break.

Given those aforementioned circumstances in Sale, where priority would often be given to Premiership matters, it's just the kind of scenario Addison anticipated when he made the switch from England to the land of his mother's birth at the beginning of last season.

"When I initially mooted the move to Peely (Ulster attack coach Dwayne Peel), one thing he said is that the European (Cup) is treated so differently over here," Addison remembered. "Obviously the PRO14 is our bread and butter, but there's definitely a different intangible feel about the place in a European week.

"There is a real electricity about everything we do day-to-day in a European week.

"It's a buzz that I find infectious and absolutely loved from minute one against Leicester at home (in round one) last year. It's special.

"Obviously having won the competition in '99, it's something we hold dear in this particular place and it's a special thing, but it's only special if you get the wins, and we're looking to get an away win at the weekend."

Easier said than done, of course, at a ground whose fearsome reputation hails from a 77-game unbeaten run by Les Jaunards that ended in 2014.

The record on their own patch has not been just as imperious domestically since, although they have still managed to win 30 of their last 31 European pool games when hosting.

Coming off the back of defeat to Racing 92 last weekend, Franck Azema's men are in the somewhat alien position of eighth in the Top 14 but their infatuation with Europe is well established and on paper they remain one of only a handful of sides posing a real threat to favourites Leinster.

In the back-three especially, Addison needs no reminder of the calibre of player he'll be coming up against.

"Clermont are notorious for playing an open brand of rugby," he said. "They attack from deep and that probably harks back to when Joe (Schmidt) was there.

"They've got some serious talent. You look at someone like (Alivereti) Raka who has been unbelievable in the World Cup and since, then Damian Penaud is probably the best young player in the country.

"Someone I know a bit better would be Nick Abendanon, who was brilliant when he played in the Premiership and he's been brilliant since he's gone across to France too.

"Clermont are a team that go into any game, home or away, looking for a win, so they'll be hurting off the back of that loss to Racing. That's the challenge but we're looking forward to whatever comes our way."

A monumental task matched only by the size of the reward. Ulster have played just two European quarter-finals on home soil - beating Toulouse in Belfast on the way to the title in 1998/99 before qualifying as top seeds in 2014 and being handed the dubious reward of hosting Saracens in a game lost after current defence coach Jared Payne's red card in the opening minutes.

Only four of the current squad - Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Iain Henderson and Rob Herring - saw the pitch in the latter, with Addison admitting the thought of bringing a last eight tie to Kingspan Stadium is one to relish.

"The fans here (in Belfast), it would be special to play in front of them in a quarter-final," he admitted. "But you're going away to one of the toughest places in Europe, so we'll take this week first rather than thinking about a home quarter-final.

"We have go away with the right attitude, the right mentality to go and win away in Clermont, and then we have Bath, another tough team, to come here.

"Hopefully if we do the right things in the next two weeks then that (home) quarter-final might come, but it only comes from a win this week and next."

For the task at hand, Dan McFarland has been able to recall both Marcell Coetzee and Jordi Murphy to the squad in what has the look of a first-choice XV, perhaps missing only injured Wallaby lock Sam Carter.

Coetzee has recovered from the concussion sustained against Connacht the Friday after Christmas while Murphy has gotten past the illness that saw him miss last week's bonus-point win over Munster at Kingspan Stadium.

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