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Ulster's young stars will use Aviva experience to aid Clermont glory bid: Soper

Going over: George Moala of Clermont Auvergne
Going over: George Moala of Clermont Auvergne
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Those taking a glance at France's Top 14 table for the first time in a few months ahead of Ulster's Champions Cup trip to Clermont may well be surprised to see Saturday's opponents languishing in the relatively lowly region of eighth place.

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Domestic consistency has proven to be elusive for Les Jaunards, whose next loss in the league will match their tally of seven from the entirety of the last campaign.

The oddity of having picked up no bonus points, be they four-try or otherwise, throughout the entire season hasn't helped their league position and, after last Saturday's defeat to Racing 92, they sit 19 points behind leaders Bordeaux-Begles.

Despite their hopes of a third Bouclier de Brennus this century appearing remote, their European campaign has - their trip to Belfast back in November aside - been more in keeping with their fearsome reputation, and other Pool Three sides Harlequins and Bath have both shipped 50 points on their own visits to France.

And Ulster skills coach Dan Soper isn't one to be lulled into a false sense of security ahead of the trip to the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

"I can't speak for them or what their focus will be, but what I do know is they have a lot of quality rugby players and, if they get it right, they can be unplayable," said Soper. "Whatever their focus is on, whatever competition, on any given day, if they get it right, they're a hell of a team - particularly at home."

And while the days of their home stadium being the most impregnable fortress in European rugby are gone - since their 77-game unbeaten run came to an end in May 2014, a further 15 matches have been lost - it remains one of the most unique playing experiences on offer in the northern hemisphere.

"I've not been there myself personally but all the feedback I've heard is that it's a marvellous place to be involved in a game of rugby," said Soper. "Our guys will lap that up and enjoy it.

"Last year we had the experience of the Aviva, the big occasion (of a European quarter-final), they really got up for that one, and away to Racing it was slightly different, but all those experiences we'll draw on and we've got a lot of experienced guys to lean on. It's something we will just relish, embrace it and look forward to it."

Having won seven of their last eight games, the province travel in a comparatively rich vein of form, and the perfect 10 taken from their interpro victories over Connacht and Munster will only have added to the confidence emanating from their four-from-four start to this European pool stage.

"We'll go there with confidence but we are under no illusions," warned Soper. "We understand that we'll have to play really well and keep getting better.

"That's what today has been about, our training today was looking back at Friday night and looking at the things we did well, but (also) looking at things we didn't do so well, that we're going to have to get right this weekend because we're up against one of the juggernauts of European rugby."

The reward for victory, however, could hardly be greater at this stage of the season. Sitting top of the pool with two games remaining, a win would not only guarantee a second consecutive place in the competition's last-eight but keep them in the box seat for a home tie ahead of the final round of fixtures when Bath come to Belfast next week.

For a side now 19 games unbeaten at Kingspan Stadium, the carrot of bringing a quarter-final to their own patch for just a third time is obvious while also providing another clear signpost of progress under head coach Dan McFarland after last year's improvements.

"Looking at the performances, we have probably had a steady upward incline in terms of the quality of performance," Soper added. "We have got an opportunity to get a home quarter-final in Europe, which would be pretty great.

"That would be an outstanding outcome for us, but this is a game where if we're not on the money, it'll go to the last game, and to put ourselves in a great position we'll probably need to win them both."

For what will be the biggest game of their season so far, Ulster should be able to field what will be close to a first-choice starting line-up.

While long-term absentees such as Sam Carter, Louis Ludik, Gareth Milasinovich, Mike Lowry and James Hume remain on the sidelines, the injury news coming out of the camp yesterday was positive.

Reporting no fresh concerns from the win over Munster would imply that Billy Burns is again ready to put what appeared to be a muscle injury behind him to take his place in the No.10 jersey, while the province confirmed that star man John Cooney has suffered no ill effects after going off for an HIA late in the derby.

Crucially, Marcell Coetzee will be back in action having gone through the return to play protocols following a clash of heads with former Ulsterman Paddy McAllister against Connacht two weekends ago.

His back-row colleague Jordi Murphy is ready for a return too having not played for the side since the away win over Harlequins last month, most recently having been laid low through illness.

The pair will come into contention for back-row places where Matty Rea, Nick Timoney and Sean Reidy especially have all shown good form of late.

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