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Stuart Olding believes Ulster can pass test in France

By Michael Sadlier

Outside in the gathering gloom, Stuart Olding spots his housemate Iain Henderson and Nick Williams doing some rather intense-looking tackling work on each other and expresses himself grateful that he is not involved.

As he peers out the window, you can't help but bring up the lingering hurt from last October's first meeting with double European champions Toulon and reflect on his own curtailed experience from that Saturday afternoon when, while directly marking Maxime Mermoz, he also had to keep an eye on a certain Mathieu Bastareaud.

"They all come in different shapes and sizes and he's certainly a big one," is Olding's reaction to the memory of that day and 23-13 defeat.

"It's one of the obstacles you have to overcome when you play top class rugby," the 21-year-old adds of a game he failed to see out after being forced off the field in the second half after being kicked in the head by Romain Taofifenua who was subsequently cited and banned.

And just in case you thought there might be some animosity still out there after the incident, Olding makes sure that he defuses any such notion.

"You know, I don't think there was anything malicious in it and he apologised to me after the game."

At least all this reflection manages to, albeit briefly, avoid any discussion about Saturday and Ulster's seemingly inevitable exit from all things European this season. With Ulster bottom of Pool Three and leaders Toulon striving to book a place in the last eight, there is still talk of possible mathematical outcomes should Neil Doak's men win tomorrow, though precious few are genuinely investing much in anything other than a home victory coming to pass.

All the players can do is accept their lot and just get on with preparing for another game, leaving aside the ramifications of trying and potentially failing to get one over on their much-moneyed hosts.

Olding doesn't exactly bristle when having to air his views on Ulster's situation regarding their likely European exit but, understandably, this subject matter is not something any of the squad find much comfort in having to dissect.

After all, this squad has got used to operating with the added hype of chasing down a European quarter-final place as has been the case over the last few seasons.

Such a notion, now, is effectively gone and with it the realisation that, going forward, the streamlined European Champions Cup looks set to be a very unforgiving competition for sides without huge budgets such as those available to Saturday's hosts.

"I suppose the pressure is off in terms of progressing out of the group stages," admits Olding.

"But it's a big opportunity for the guys to step up and play against some of the best players in the world.

"Our squad will thrive on that and there are a few things that we want to put right (after the first game)," the two-times capped Ireland international states before pointing out that, actually, there is considerable pressure on this group of players to perform and potentially ransack the odds.

"But I wouldn't say there is no pressure. Mathematically it is possible for us to get out of the group, though it is quite a long shot," he says.

"I think there is a huge amount of pressure on the boys being brought in to put their hands up and test themselves.

"It's hugely disappointing the position we're in at the minute," he says referring to the situation in Pool Three rather than the fallout from Sunday's less than convincing PRO12 win at Treviso. "But everybody realises that and also realises what they've got to do (over there).

"A lot of people are writing us off, but I don't think they're right to do that.

"We'll go over there, do what we have to do and who knows? It would be nice to get another away win in France."

He also accepts that showing up well is something that is required not only for general squad morale but is also a prerequisite for impressing Joe Schmidt ahead of the Ireland coach naming his extended Six Nations squad.

And, after Olding's try-scoring cameo off the bench against Georgia, along with him them being called down to Dublin to provide squad cover on the day of the Australia game, you can understand that the former Belfast Royal Academy pupil wants to put in a decent display.

With his versatility - Olding can play centre, full-back, out-half and wing - there is much to recommend him to Schmidt, but the Ulsterman's priority is to perform for his province at the weekend and then let the rest (namely Ireland) take care of itself.

"On the national side these two games with Toulon and Leicester coming up are where you want to perform at your best so then you can hopefully get into the Six Nations squad," he says before taking another glance out of the window at the now empty pitch below which is now shrouded in darkness and focusing again on preparations for Saturday's more immediate challenge.

"There is a lot of pressure on us to put in a performance and I think we have the ability to do so.

"It's just a case of getting on mindset right."

And hitting Toulon with some of the ferocity shown in Henderson and Williams's tackling drill.

Belfast Telegraph


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