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Ulster aim to hit Test heights in Clermont showdown

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster head coach Neil Doak believes that his side's international stars must once again produce at a Test standard if they are to get the better of Clermont on their own patch this weekend.

Boosted by the return of key contributors to Ireland's successful November, the province overcame the French heavy-hitters and league leaders at the Kingspan Stadium last Saturday but their Champions Cup task will be all the harder in the Stade Marcel Michelin return on Sunday.

Having felt the first game was of an international standard, Doak wants more of the same in the Auvergne where top spot in the pool entering the final two rounds will be on the line.

"The European games, they're massive," he said.

"They bring a different edge to things and everybody knows what needs to be done.

"You need to be at your best. We know it's going to be a great stadium, a great atmosphere, and their crowd are pretty loud, but we've got some seasoned internationals who have played big games.

"On the back of Saturday, (Rory) Best and the boys were saying it was like an international.

"The intensity, the speed of the game, the quality. It's going to need another massive performance in Clermont."

For Doak, similarity to the international arena in the Champions Cup is not confined solely to the 80 minutes.

Playing the same opposition twice in eight days requires the kind of preparation that, aside from rounds three and four of Europe, is usually only experienced in a Test series.

In the history of European competition, virtually two-thirds of Ulster's back-to-backs have ended up with a win apiece, and the former international cricketer admits that tackling a side twice in such quick succession poses a unique set of problems.

"You're caught between a rock and a hard place whether you tinker with a few bits and pieces," he said.

"There was some stuff we didn't get through in the game or didn't arise and give us those opportunities, so we've kept them in the play book.

"It can be difficult. You've got your mindset to a level and then all of a sudden you've got to go again. I think that's the key for us. Last year we were ready to go again against Toulouse. We had a great performance and then got the job done again. The players have got exposure of that.

"There's a few sore bodies still and we have to make sure we're fresh for the weekend, both physically and mentally," he said.

"Hopefully the work we've done will give us that extra edge and it's just about being clinical."

The idea of freshening up will be made all the harder given the personnel at their disposal.

Doak sounded pessimistic when asked if there would be any injured returnees to the panel in Clermont.

Captain Andrew Trimble and Stuart Olding were both injured while with Ireland last month and Robbie Diack looks set to miss out having been substituted at half-time last week.

"There won't be too many changes," said Doak.

"We were hoping Trimby and Stuart Olding would be back in. They were training with us but they're not overly comfortable.

"Franco (van der Merwe) will probably be coming back into the fold. Roger (Wilson) is probably at the back end of stuff and needs one more week.

"Robbie Diack may not come through this weekend. He got an impact and internally, he just wasn't feeling the best.

"From a selection point of view it'll probably be quite similar. We'll see how we train on Friday."



Champions Cup:

Stade Marcel-Michelin, Sunday, 3.05pm

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