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Ulster can triumph in Clermont tie to keep Euro dream alive, says Kiss

By Jonathan Bradley

Ahead of what he has described as the key game of his side's European season, Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has admitted that preparing for a star-studded Clermont side has been a "reality check".

Clermont, who sit top of the Top 14 table, boast an array of talented internationals in their line-up and have a strength in depth that gives head coach Franck Azema a wealth of selection options.

Indeed many see them as the most likely side to stop Mark McCall's Saracens from retaining their crown come May.

"You look at them and you can't help but be impressed by what they can offer," Kiss said.

"You admire them but it puts the fear of God in you, really.

"I'm not telling anyone anything new here really but we've had a reality check when we looked at the video this week.

"They are a team that can attack you from anywhere. (Morgan) Parra, (Camille) Lopez in the halves pulling the strings, they can shift it wide pretty quick and when you have (Wesley) Fofana, (Remi) Lamerat and (Noa) Nakaitaci, they're a brilliant team to watch.

"We have to make them not so brilliant on Saturday. That's what Europe is. On this stage, you've got to accept that's what it's about.

"It's a bit of guess work but we think we know what they'll do in the core of their team. Parra and Lopez will be the halves.

"Fritz Lee, if he's not in the back-row, I'd be surprised. (Thomas) Domingo will prop.

"I'd be hard-pressed to see them go past (Nick) Abendenon, (David) Strettle and Nakaitaci in the back-three.

"Fofana will be in there. They've got such depth that they can shift the others around quite easily.

"Maybe they do that for the away game but they'll still be strong."

Kiss will be able to call upon two of his own heavy hitters for the first time in almost two months as Rory Best and Paddy Jackson return from international duty.

Both men took part in three of Ireland's four Tests during November but will return to provincial colours this week.

Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding, Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble will all, however, miss out through injury.

"Craig won't make it," Kiss admitted after the winger picked up a knock in the victory over Cardiff.

"Trimby will be short too, he won't make the match. That sort of challenges us.

"We know the story with Jared and Stuart Olding too.

"We do have Rory and Paddy back though.

"Those two make a massive difference. We're not relying on that but they're in a great vein of form.

"They had a good November, especially Besty. It was an enormous campaign from him.

"He stood up big and tall and got some real reward."

Having let a lead, and then a consolation bonus point, slip against Bordeaux-Begles in October, Ulster know they are up against it in the pool, even after beating Aviva Premiership side Exeter Chiefs at home.

The back-to-backs with Clermont always figured to be crucial and Kiss admitted that their campaign would be in dire straits should they fail to net the victory this weekend.

"Yeah, I think this is the key game," he admitted.

"When you look around at what else is happening in our game, and the other game in the pool...if Clermont win they're in charge of everything.

"And then we're pretty low in the points to be able to get one of those second-place spots.

"It's pretty important overall."

One thing working in Ulster's favour is their eye-catching record against French sides at home.

They have beaten seven of their last eight visitors from the Top14, and were hugely impressive in seeing off an admittedly abject Toulouse last season.

Kiss thinks Clermont will be a different proposition.

"We've certainly looked at the similarities but Clermont are a bit different, they have a bit of a pragmatic approach," he said. "They're not afraid to kick with Parra's left boot but it can offer you something if you're not afraid to go at them.

"They've scored a lot of points, but there's been a lot of points scored against them too.

"You have to match them in the forward pack to get any leverage against them.

"The similarities are there, but that's where it stops.

"We know that's there but it's up to us to put something together as a collective. The pack really has to be a good eight and the backs have to be buzzing."

Toulon, then in the middle of a run of three straight European titles, were the French victors in that run of eight games, winning 23-13 in 2014.

That, like this clash with Clermont, was a game that kicked off in the 1pm Saturday slot with a flatter than usual atmosphere the result.

"I'd be disappointed if anyone says afterwards that it was the time that did for us," Kiss commented.

"It's different but we have to be able to hit the button and fly at one o'clock and do the business."

  • Ulster v Clermont, Champions' Cup Pool 5: Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 1.00pm

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