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Nick Timoney determined to fight off competition and help Ulster achieve their Euro mission

Pick me: Nick Timoney is eager for a role in France
Pick me: Nick Timoney is eager for a role in France

By Michael Sadlier

Nick Timoney's time in front of the various recording devices strewn across the table was marked by a largely ultra-careful approach, and the guard only really slipped when what was seen last month at the RDS Arena came his way.

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With Ulster struggling for fit backs after Angus Curtis had to leave the Leinster game on the medical cart, Timoney was shifted out to the wing with half an hour of the match still to play.

It dragged him out of the relative comfort zone in the back-row, though being shifted out to the touchline was not entirely unfamiliar to the pacey Dublin native and former Sevens player.

"You certainly don't want too many backs to get injured, but you also get to fulfil the failed ambitions of your younger self," said the 24-year-old.

"I didn't concede a try on the wing that time which was a plus."

A chip and chase was even thrown into the mix as Ulster managed to battle back to collect a try bonus in the high-scoring 52-42 defeat to his native province.

"That was a bit questionable, but I just thought I'd get into the spirit of it," he recalled of attempting to emulate Jacob Stockdale.

This season has not exactly clicked in the way Timoney would have wanted. A hand injury picked up in the final pre-season friendly at Glasgow kept him out until late October and his only taste of European rugby so far has been 18 minutes off the bench in November's home victory over Clermont.

Though he got involvement in all three festive interpros - and was in the team that took to the pitch against both Leinster and Munster, last week's match being only his fourth start in eight games - with Marcell Coetzee, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy and Matty Rea all being available for Saturday's return fixture at Clermont, there is no guarantee that he will make the cut for the trip to France.

"The back-row depth in our squad seems pretty crazy at the moment," Timoney admitted.

"It was great to be back involved in the interpros there and getting three games in a row was nice. Fingers crossed I can keep playing going forward and I think it's a pretty enjoyable team to be part of at the moment.

"If there are people competing with you it gives you extra motivation."

There will be no doubting that this game, essentially what looks like a shoot-out to win Pool Three, is one to be part of with unbeaten Ulster leading the group and being on the cusp of making the quarter-finals again.

A result at Stade Marcel-Michelin is not perhaps just as unlikely as previous trips to France, including Ulster's visit to the Auvergne in season 2016-17 when they lost 38-19, though it is undoubtedly the squad's most forbidding challenge to date, with so much at stake for both sides.

"To be in a position where it's all in our hands is obviously what we want," said Timoney.

The possibility of ultimately nailing down a home quarter-final, should they win in France and then see off a Bath side at Kingspan Stadium who have nothing to play for, cannot be ignored.

Neither, of course, can the chances of them blowing it should they lose both of their last two group matches, but, for the moment, Ulster's gaze is on fulfilling their ambitions of, at least, making the quarter-finals.

Mind you, playing that knockout game at home is a thought that is hard to resist.

"We know the statistics on home quarter-finals and that kind of thing, and that's ultimately what our goal is," said Timoney. "To put ourselves in a position where it's all in our control is pretty pleasing."

As usual, the prospect of playing in a rather more hostile atmosphere than is usually the case is thrown into the mix regarding journeying to France.

Timoney played in last season's heavy defeat at Racing 92's dazzling La Défense facility, but the Stade Marcel-Michelin will be an entirely different experience in terms of the energy generated in the stands never mind what may unfold out on the park.

"Clermont looks like one of the best places to go in Europe and I think the prospect of playing there is pretty exciting, to see one of the more hostile environments," he said.

"We've had a big focus on creating our own energy in the squad and not relying on external factors," he added of dealing with the naturally noisily partisan crowd.

And what about matters actually out on the pitch?

Having already beaten them in round two - Clermont earned a losing bonus point from Ulster's 18-13 result - will surely count for something, as should Ulster's decent form.

Timoney, who was a replacement in the November game against Les Jaunards, knows what's coming, particularly if back-rowers Fritz Lee and Peceli Yato are deployed again.

As Timoney explained: "We've seen what they can do. When we played them here we needed to stop these guys and I think we did a pretty good job of that. That's been a focus, key players on the opposition team we need to be wary of and how to stop them.

"Our defence has been good."

Not that Ulster are going there to merely try and plug the gaps. They want to attack Clermont and, most of all, not give them an abundance of possession to allow the home side's off-loading game to kick into gear.

"Their home games in Europe have been 50-pointers (against both Bath and Harlequins), so you give them too much ball and they can be pretty dangerous," he said.

"So we'll look to try and keep the ball. We're also getting more familiar with what makes us play well."

Sounds like it could be quite a game.

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