Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey ready for Jono Gibbes reunion in Clermont
Centre Stuart McCloskey knows exactly what to expect as he comes up against his former boss Jono Gibbes this evening when Ulster start their Heineken Champions Cup campaign against Clermont at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.
McCloskey played under Gibbes when the New Zealander took over the Ulster head coaching job in January 2018 from Les Kiss.
However, Gibbes quickly left at the end of his first season in Belfast for a spell with Waikato back in his homeland before moving to La Rochelle.
He returned to Clermont as head coach at the start of this season after a three-year spell there as forwards coach.
McCloskey knows Gibbes will have a simple game plan to down Ulster.
“Physical, good at the breakdown, he was more forwards-oriented, he left Dwayne (Peel) with the attack side, so we’re more worried about what Clermont as a whole are doing,” said McCloskey.
McCloskey also knows what to expect from the Stade Marcel-Michelin, a venue at which Ulster have never tasted victory.
“I’ve played twice there now and haven’t won yet, they’ve been relatively good games both times,” he said. “Last time, before lockdown, was quite a good game, I can’t remember the exact score but I remember it being tight.
“The time before was in 2017 and I remember it was 40-odd 20-something, I think I remember we went 21-0 down early and came back a bit and then when they took the lead again I don’t think I’ve heard a louder stadium.
“There’s metal boardings, they were getting slammed and you could barely hear yourself think, it’s a great place to go, one of the best club rugby stadiums about.”
McCloskey agrees with the bookies that Ulster aren’t among the fancied teams to lift the trophy in Marseille at the end of May but feels the 1999 champions could spring a few surprises.
“I’d say we’re probably not one of the favourites, but I definitely think on our day we have the strength to beat any team, particularly at home,” he said. “We’re still working towards that and we have plenty to work on as well, when you get into the knockout stages anything can happen.
“But I wouldn’t put us among the favourites.”
The game will be Ulster’s fourth consecutive game on the road, a win over Leinster was sandwiched between defeats by Connacht and the Ospreys.
It (the Ospreys result) definitely took the shine off what we did against Leinster a bit, the performance against Leinster, we wanted to make it a bit grittier, keep it tight and go after them defensively.
“Against the Ospreys we had a completely different game plan...we felt like we got ourselves into good positions in the first half, we just didn’t capitalise when we got within 10 metres of the line.”
“That’s a big work-on for us this week and going forward, to convert those chances and be more clinical, because we had a lot of good phase play before we got into the 22, we just couldn’t seem to get over the line.”
James Hume has been restored to the Ulster midfield in one of five changes to the side that lost in Swansea last weekend.
The other four come in pack with Andy Warwick and hooker Robbie Herring coming into the front row, Marcus Rea starts at blindside flanker and Duane Vermeulen makes his debut at No8.
McFarland has gone for a 6-2 forwards split on the bench.
Former Munster out half JJ Hanrahan starts for Clermont.
Ulster team to play ASM Clermont Auvergne (Heineken Champions Cup Round 1; Saturday, December 11 at Stade Marcel-Michelin; kick-off 6.30pm local, 5.30pm UK/Irish time, live on BT Sport):
(15-9) Mike Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy, Billy Burns, John Cooney.
(1-8) Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: John Andrew, Jack McGrath, Ross Kane, Sam Carter, Greg Jones, Sean Reidy, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore.
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