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Ulster v Clermont: Humphreys has a very clear vision

By Jonathan Bradley

Ian Humphreys believes Ulster's upcoming back-to-backs with Clermont could prove to be the turning point in his old side's season.

Les Kiss's men welcome the French giants to Kingspan on Saturday (1pm kick-off), with their Champions Cup hopes hinging on the result, before travelling to the Auvergne region next weekend for the re-match.

And Humphreys, who retired from rugby last year, thinks his former team-mates would put a whole different perspective on what has been a difficult campaign so far should they topple the twice-beaten finalists.

Ulster have already lost four times this season, on three occasions in the Guinness PRO12 and at the hands of Bordeaux-Begles in Europe.

"Results haven't been ideal in the last while, far from it," admitted the man who made over 100 appearances for the province as well as turning out for Leicester Tigers and London Irish.

"But you can gradually see that performances now aren't a million miles away. You bring a few key players back into that squad from injury and international duty and they're going to be competitive.

"In a season when they're getting a hard time in the press and from the fans, if you manage to put together two good wins then all of a sudden your season totally changes.

"Momentum is with you, morale is good heading into the big Christmas fixtures, and the sky is the limit."

Having enjoyed plenty of big European nights in Belfast, one area of concern for Humphreys would be the TV-dictated early kick-off.

Just like in 2014 when the then European champions Toulon came to Kingspan, the visit of Clermont will kick-off at 1pm on Saturday afternoon.

"For me, I didn't play international rugby, so European nights were the biggest games that I ever played," said the 34-year-old. "The difference is huge.

"There's a buzz around the squad all week from preparing to be playing against the best players and knowing that you've no second chances.

"In the league, if you lose a game you can always come back from it.

"In Europe, if you lose a game that you shouldn't do, you're done. The players will know that, but it's exciting.

"The last time Clermont came to town, we did a good job on them and probably should have beaten them over there in the second game.

"We were winning that game with 15 minutes to go but we lost momentum after a few changes and that was a big missed opportunity for the squad.

"There's always the reputation that French clubs don't travel well but if you look at Ulster's home record in Europe generally it holds up over the last seven or eight years no matter who we're playing.

"I wouldn't say the fans make it hostile on these occasions, but they certainly give the players a huge lift.

"They really are that proverbial 16th man. The players love being at a full house with that European buzz.

"One o'clock is always an awkward time to play though, especially when you're used to playing at night.

"It's a big change. It's the kind of thing people neglect, or don't understand, but that is one of the biggest things for Ulster.

"They're a good team though and, especially with the Ireland boys coming back in and buzzing after what they've done, I fully fancy them to do a good job."

Saturday will mark just the second occasion that Clermont have come to the Kingspan Stadium with the Ballymena man having fond memories of the first visit some five years ago.

In what was then Ravenhill, and in front of 9,500 fans back in 2011, the hotly-tipped French outfit arrived in Belfast to open a campaign that would end with Ulster in a Twickenham final against Leinster.

The scorer of all of the hosts' points in the 16-11 victory over Les Jaunards was none other than Ian Humphreys.

"Clermont were coming in as a big powerhouse, who just hadn't won the whole thing in Europe yet," he recalled.

"They really were an impressive outfit back then.

"They went through a bit of a lull after that but they're back now as a really strong team.

"There was an element of luck about it, they missed a penalty that would have had them right back in it, but the forwards were absolutely brilliant that night.

"For the try, I just remember Adam D'Arcy handed off Reagan King.

"We'd been doing a 'guns session' in the gym earlier in the week and I remember joking that he wouldn't have been able to fend him off otherwise.

"I was just lucky it wasn't somebody faster coming back at me otherwise I might not have gotten over."

Such occasions are in the past now for Humphreys who is enjoying his new career as a Player Manager at the Esportif International rugby agency where he is under the tutelage of fellow former Ulster player Ryan Constable.

"It's going really well," Humphreys enthused. "I'm enjoying it. Ryan is a great fella. He's a great bloke but he's very switched on too.

"He knows what he's doing so I'm learning from one of the best about and it keeps you involved too.

"Everyone always says that the worst thing about retiring is losing that camaraderie.

"Although I'm not in the dressing room any more it means that I speak to the fellas enough to keep up with them.

"If I'm brutally honest I was never that into the whole rugby thing, I was always more of a family person so it hasn't changed too much in that regard.

"It's nice to wake up in the morning not being as stiff and sore, and certainly having not missed any tackles.

"I've always had a few niggles with my back and stuff, but certainly I don't struggle to get out of bed any more.

"I haven't had to take painkillers in a while which is the best thing... and that's someone who wasn't as involved in the physical stuff as much as someone like Stevie (Ferris). It's nice to waken up and be fresh. Not to have to stretch, or take a few minutes to stand up."

Living in Broughshane with wife Jenny and young daughters Anna and Zoe, Humphreys is eagerly anticipating the first Christmas away from work of his adult life.

"With rugby you're always home by around four and with a day in the week off, so I'm working longer hours but it's great to get to plan a bit more family time," he added. "Getting to spend weekends at home, and getting to plan things in advance, it's great.

"I'm going to have my first ever Christmas off which will be brilliant.

"When you're playing you don't notice it or it doesn't bother you, but it's nice when you retire to say, 'right I'm going to take Christmas off'."

He added: "Don't get me wrong, you do really miss Friday nights at the Kingspan but things are really good at the moment."

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