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Ulster's Heineken Champions Cup dream hinges on home win against Clermont: Iain Henderson

Powerhouse: Iain Henderson in action in win over Bath
Powerhouse: Iain Henderson in action in win over Bath
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It keeps coming back to the World Cup. Even while it remains to be seen just how much public appetite there is to draw out the inquest, especially in the wake of a four-from-four European weekend for the provinces, there remains no escaping Japan just yet for those involved.

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Ulster, having beaten Bath impressively and resolutely, if not resoundingly, last weekend, find themselves facing Clermont on Friday evening (7.45pm kick-off) knowing that a loss and failure to hold serve back at home just six days on will undo much of the good work that kicked off another Heineken Champions Cup campaign.

There was surely no sign of a hangover from national duty in The Rec. Iain Henderson's first game as skipper went perfectly as Ulster began with one of the what figures to be two away wins required.

The lock even spoke of feeling "refreshed" afterwards, while Jacob Stockdale was back producing match-winning moments and both Jordi Murphy and Rob Herring aided the cause considerably too.

With only a six-day turnaround ahead of this game - one that will have a huge impact on their quarter-final prospects - the parallel remains however.

How difficult is it to get up and go again? What didn't happen between facing Scotland and Japan in green this autumn that must between Bath and Clermont?

"In terms of pool rugby and trying to back it up, it's that term 'form' that people talk about in sport that nobody can really get any grasp of or understand how to find it properly," said Henderson.

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"We just have to keep doing what we're doing on and off the pitch to ensure we perform to our best at the weekend.

"There's a lot of pressure on at these stages of the tournament. First of all it's your first home game and those are the games, if you are to do well, you have to win. We have done the more difficult task first of winning away and now we have to back it up this weekend. We have an exceptional team who are just starting to find form coming to us, so we have to be the best version of ourselves that we can be to try and counter what they're going to bring.

"Obviously it was a decent result last week but after the reviews we have a lot to work on.

"(Attack coach Dwayne Peel) Peely had a lot to show of times we didn't capitalise. We let a few opportunities slip away from us."

It's a less than typical description of an Ulster team but, over the last number of weeks, this has looked a better side without rather than with the ball. More readily known for eye-catching attacking play undermined by a soft centre, this incarnation of the northern province appears to be built upon solid defensive and scrum foundations but lacking at present in the cutting edge department.

While that can't be expected to last with both time and the quality of backs at Dan McFarland's disposal, there is a positive to be drawn from the way in which they are holding other teams at bay.

Their PRO14 statistics are presently skewed somewhat by the isolated hammering by the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in October, but recent weeks offer an encouraging trend.

It's been a significant step for a side who just two years ago produced arguably their worst set of defensive metrics of the professional era.

With Jared Payne, the retired centre turned defence coach, offering guidance, Ulster have sacked their more passive drift for a system based upon linespeed and decision-making.

And while a cold November day on a heavy pitch is rarely the setting of scything attacking moves, it was noticeable how often the likes of Stockdale and Luke Marshall were able to pressure the Bath passer into an errant delivery last weekend.

"We have to make sure our defence is watertight," said Henderson, with Clermont's many hard-carrying threats in mind. "Jared is slowly but surely getting everyone onto the same page, same hymn sheet so to speak.

"He's actually got a lot more friendly (since retirement).

"He was able to take what he thought coaches might not have been doing well enough when he was a player and try to do it better.

"He worked with some incredible coaches and he has taken those aspects of what he learned and brought it all together.

"Him being so recently out of the professional game makes him feel in touch with what he is doing. You'll see him every now and again trying to do bits and pieces with us and taking sessions in the gym or on the pitch and he's keen to get everyone involved and get as much buy-in as possible."

The system certainly seems both more effective and more in line with the rest of Irish rugby, with Henderson relishing the change.

"When you're defending together it just feels like everyone knows what to do and it falls into place rather than being a massive effort and a technical challenge," he said.

"It's enjoyable to defend when you see positive outcomes and turnovers being forced.

"You see teams making mistakes and you're forcing mistakes, there is no better feeling. Those are the things that you strive to get, but in terms of the way Jared has been coaching us it is about trying to make an impact, try to see those visible changes instead of the other aspects, or defensive systems which might be drifting off and working teams more to the side.

"Everyone has bought in to what he's trying to do and it seems to be working for us."

They'll need a solid defensive effort and then some against a side like Clermont. There's little point denying that Ulster's European prospects will have swung heavily one way or the other by the time tonight is over with.

"The game coming up is massive for the rest of our European campaign and will definitely set the tone," Henderson added.

"We are in the middle of a five-week block of two European games back-to-back with a difficult PRO14 game sandwiched in between, so we are right in the middle of what I like to think of as the business end of the season."

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