Key Clash Preview: ASM Clermont Auvergne v Ulster

Date: 21/1/12
Kickoff: 15:40
Venue: Stade Marcel Michelin
Referee: Dave Pearson

Clermont:

Unbeaten at home since November 2009, only seven teams have picked up a losing bonus point against Clermont in their last 36 matches at the Stade Marcel Michelin. It is the definition of a fortress, making Ulster’s challenge enormous. With an all-international back line featuring some of the world’s greatest talents in Lee Byrne, Sitiveni Sivivatu and captain AurĂ©lien Rougerie, the quality of their firepower is excellent. Up front, Nathan Hines and Julian Pierre form an effective lineout, whilst Julien Bonnaire should cause some damage in the loose.

Ulster:

Fresh from one of their greatest results in Heineken Cup history, Ulster will be full of confidence going into Saturday’s match. They have a world class scrum-half and kicker in Ruan Pienaar, whose control against Leicester was superb. Outside him in the backs, Andrew Trimble is in great form on the wing, although losing centre Darren Cave is a blow. It is in the pack though where Ulster will have to win this game, and with their scrum controlled by the excellent John Afoa and a great lineout with Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy, they have a strong chance. That’s all before mentioning the devastating power of Stephen Ferris.

What to Expect:

The scrum to just about tip Ulster’s way, the lineouts to feature plenty of steals by both sides, and the breakdown to be a battlefield as Ferris and Chris Henry try to overcome Bonnaire and Gerhard Vosloo. Both teams operate with kicking scrum-halves, who rarely miss, so Morgan Parra and Pienaar could well rack up points into the double figures. Wesley Fofana and Rougerie have a physical edge in the midfield, whilst all six members of both back threes are both good finishers and defenders.

Ones to Watch: Wesley Fofana v Chris Henry

Two players both on the edge of international recognition. Fofana is enjoying a breakthrough season for Les Jaunards, with 6 tries in all competitions so far. Tipped to start for France in the Six Nations alongside his captain Rougerie, another big performance against Ulster could cement his spot. Henry on the other hand has not made the Ireland senior squad for the Six Nations, but produced an astonishing performance last week at the breakdown against the Tigers. If he can stand up in France and do it again, his time will come.

Head to Head: Morgan Parra v Ruan Pienaar

The most important members of both teams. Parra is a superb controller of his side, marshalling them into the right positions and able to clear the lines with his boot when it counts. The disappointment in South Africa that Ruan Pienaar was to stay in Ireland for another two years sums up how much his quality is appreciated around the world. He nailed some brilliant kicks last week in Ulster, and now he must do the same again.

Prediction:

Ulster’s performance last week at home to Leicester was so complete, that it feels wrong to write them off. However, they seem more likely to get a losing bonus point than to pull of an amazing victory away from home. The power and quality that Clermont have appears to be too much. Clermont by 6.

by Ben Coles