Ulster will be hoping to win their opening two games in the European Champions Cup for the first time in six years as they clash with Clermont at Kingspan Stadium tonight (7.45pm).
Ulster kicked off their quest for European glory with a one-point win against Bath at the Rec last Saturday and haven’t won their first two pool games since the 2013/14 season when Leicester were beaten in Belfast before a win at Montpellier the following weekend.
Captain Iain Henderson knows how important toppling the French side will prove in the race for the knockout stages.
“You take it game by game, so far that’s what we are trying to do,” he said.
“The game coming up is massive for the rest of our European campaign and will definitely set the tone.
“We are in the middle of a five-week block of two European games back-to-back with a difficult Pro14 game sandwiched in between so we are right in the middle of what I like to think of as the business end of the season, because how many times have we been struggling, trying to scrape a point in the last game of Europe or trying to scrape a couple of points to make sure we’re qualified for Europe the next season.
“If we can do the work now and get our work done early in the season it will take a lot of pressure off guys returning from injury, (it will) take a lot of pressure off guys having to perform at the back end of the season,” added the lock.
“Ultimately we play our best rugby when we know we’ve done all the work, the hard work is behind us and we can just concentrate on playing.
“There’s a lot of pressure on at these stages of the tournament, first of all it’s your first home game and those are the games, if you are to do well in the tournament, you have to do well in those ones.
“We have done the more difficult task first of winning away, now we have to back it up this weekend; we have an exceptional team who are just starting to find form coming to us so we have to the best version of ourselves that we can be to try and counter what they’re going to bring.”
Henderson said it was difficult to maintain form in big games such as these.
“In terms of pool rugby and trying to back it up, that term ‘form’ that people talk about in sport and nobody can really get any grasp of or understand how to find it properly, I think if it was easy to find everyone would do it, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing on and off the pitch to ensure we perform our best at the weekend,” he said.
“Clermont are a team who come and like to attack and there are definite opportunities to attack as well; some of their results in the Top14 they wouldn’t be too happy with but you see some of the tries they can put together and manufacture, they’re definitely an extremely dangerous team - we have to make sure our defence is watertight.”
Dan McFarland makes four changes to the starting line-up from the side that beat Bath with three of them enforced.
Louie Ludik replaces the Rob Lyttle on the wing, Eric O’Sullivan is at loose head prop due to Jack McGrath’s injury and with Sam Carter ruled out Alan O’Connor comes into the second row.
Sean Reidy starts in the back row at the expense of Matty Rea.
Clermont have left French international half back duo Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez on the bench, Fijian pair Peceli Yato and Alivereti Raka who each got a brace of tries against Quins both start.
International tighthead prop, Marty Moore, has become the latest player to announce a contract extension, which will keep him at Ulster until the summer of 2022.
Having represented Ireland at underage and senior level, Moore joined Ulster from Wasps in the summer of 2018.
He made his international debut in February 2014 and was part of the Six Nations Championship winning sides of 2014 and 2015.
The 28-year-old has made 22 appearances for Ulster and has touched down for two tries. Moore made a timely return from injury this month.
He said: “I’ve settled in really well at Ulster and have thoroughly enjoyed my time at the club, so I’m delighted to be able to get a deal sorted for another two years. Working with the coaches and wider support staff, I feel like I still have a lot of potential to improve, and I’m enjoying that process. We’re a club with big ambitions and I’m looking forward to playing my part in helping to achieve those.”
Head Coach, Dan McFarland said of the deal: “Marty has been a great addition to the squad. His ability and experience at set piece time has been demonstrated time and again, and has helped all our props make significant progress. His performances over the last two games have been excellent and he is keen to keep developing as part of our squad going forward.”