Ulster’s Champions Cup opener against Toulouse already a ‘must-win’ says Ian Madigan
Ireland out-half Ian Madigan believes Ulster must start with a win on Friday night against Toulouse under the new Heineken Champions Cup format or their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals for a third consecutive season could end after 80 minutes.
The new structure of the tournament sees 24 teams separated into two pools of 12 with the top four in each going into a two-legged quarter-final.
Ulster play Toulouse and Gloucester home and away but with the likes of last season’s winners Exeter Chiefs, runners-up Racing 92 and the likes of Clermont, Bristol Bears and Munster in Pool B there is no margin for error.
Ulster face the four-time European Champions at Kingspan Stadium (8pm), where 500 fans will be in attedance, with the French side sitting second in the Top 14.
“For us, the big focus is first up against Toulouse, winning your first home game is crucial,” stated Madigan.
“If we lose tonight, we’re under no illusions with only three other group games remaining how challenging it would be.
“What we’ve got to do is focus on ourselves, go out and get a win and then carry that momentum into Gloucester away next week.
“That’s all we’ve got to focus on, we can’t be too worried about what’s going on in other groups and in other games, that’s something you can look at going into your final match,” he added. “It is definitely a more unusual format, but I think we’ll see teams and players adapt very quickly.”
Ulster go into the encounter full of confidence after winning all eight games this season in the Pro14 with six bonus points to sit top of Conference B.
Madigan said: “We’re eight from eight and we’ve been building week to week, so to be going into Europe with the confidence of going well in our domestic league is huge.
“We’re under no illusions that we’re coming into a very challenging period, we’re going to be playing one of the best sides in France, followed by one of the top sides in the Gallagher Premiership and three really tough interpros.”
The Pool B fixture is a repeat of last season’s quarter-final between the sides in France, which Toulouse won 36-8.
Jacob Stockdale returns from Ireland duty on the wing as Michael Lowry continues at full-back.
Stuart McCloskey is back from international camp and forms the midfield partnership with James Hume, while Eric O’Sullivan and Rob Herring return to the front row with lock Sam Carter captaining the side.