France stars return for Ulster clash
November 10, 2011
Julien Bonnaire played a central role in helping France to the World Cup final against New Zealand © Getty Images
The 1999 Heineken Cup winners Ulster entertain Top 14 giants Clermont Auvergne at Ravenhill on Saturday afternoon.
Despite Ulster's heroics at the turn of the century, the only time they have reached the knockout stages since was last year when they were despatched by the eventual finalists Northampton Saints. And they have endured a mixed start to the 2011-12 RaboDirect PRO12 season lying mid-table with four wins from eight. But coach Brian McLaughlin can call on a host of his well-known charges with Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and John Afoa all back from the World Cup and raring to go. Their expensive import Ruan Pienaar, however, is struggling with injury and is likely to miss the opening stages of the tournament.
Their Pool Four opponents Clermont - with the pair joined by Leicester Tigers and Aironi in the group - have only reached the quarter-final of Europe's premier tournament but they have managed that feat on three occasions - in 2000, 2002 and 2010. They have had to do without Julien Pierre, Julien Bonnaire, Morgan Parra and Aurelien Rougerie thus far in the season while the quartet were in New Zealand with the French side, but have fared well in the league and are joint top of the Top 14 with Toulouse. And they have bolstered their squad with the signatures of Regan King, Lee Byrne, Nathan Hines and former All Blacks flyer Sitiveni Sivivatu in the close season so look primed to make a charge on both fronts.
Ulster - Player to Watch: John Afoa is set to make his European bow for Ulster after making his full debut just last week. The World Cup winning prop will have a crucial role alongside Rory Best and Tom Court in holding the gnarled Clermont scrum.
Ulster - Team News: Brian McLaughlin has named an unchanged Ulster side for this clash. Captain Johan Muller along with Ireland internationals Tom Court and Stephen Ferris have all over come minor injuries to take their places in the starting xv. On the replacements bench Declan Fitzpatrick returns from injury in place of Adam Macklin and Willie Faloon comes in for Robbie Diack.
Clermont Auvergne - Player to Watch: Morgan Parra is back to his more familiar role of scrum-half having filled the No.10 shirt with mixed results for France in the World Cup. Expect him to revel in his return to pulling the strings closer to the scrum.
Clermont Auvergne - Team News: Aurelien Rougerie, Morgan Parra, Julien Pierre and Julien Bonnaire all return to Clermont's starting xv. Wesley Fofana also comes into the Clermont backline as Kini Murimurivalu misses out. Jason White drops to the bench with Bonnaire's return.
Key Battle: Of all the fascinating match-ups across the pitch, Bonnaire against Ferris has the ring of a heavy weight clash on the blindside. Both players enjoyed strong World Cups and while Bonnaire will be eager to make his presence felt at the lineout, Ferris will be confident of blasting holes in the Clermont defence.
Trivia: By the end of the pool stage, Ulster will have reached the impressive total of 100 games in the Heineken Cup
Stats: Clermont Auvergne took part in both the 1000th and 1100th game in the tournament when they faced the Ospreys and Leinster in 2009 and 2010 respectively
"Clermont are an exceptional side, they've proved that with their results in the Top 14. We are going to focus on us, cut out the errors and try to be a bit more clinical when opportunities arise."
"We will be in a very hostile. For us it will be important to show solidarity, perhaps by having a very simple game and especially a good defense. This has been the highlight of the team since the start of the season."
Prediction: Clermont to bounce back from their defeat to Stade Francais in the Top 14 last weekend as their returning internationals make the difference at Ravenhill.
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