FOR ULSTER AND, in particular Ulster’s backs, analysing the Montpellier threat ahead of tomorrow’s Heineken Cup clash is a difficult task.
The southern French side have given all the signals of a team that has thrown their hat at the European competition. Having only managed to beat Zebre in their first three Pool 5 outings, coach Fabien Galthie made a raft of changes for the home clash with Leicester and duly suffered defeat number three.
After yesterday’s backs meeting, Luke Marshall told TheScore.ie of the minor struggle Mark Anscombe, Jonny Bell and Neil Doak had in putting much fresh information on the back-line that will head for Belfast.
Half backs Francois Trinh-Duc and Jonathan Pelissier are among the many first-team regulars who will likely be rested. After a winter period that has yielded just one win since returning from the November international break, it would seem an obvious move to offer some respite to the squad that has slipped to eighth place in the league.
That poor form has made Montpellier patterns difficult to identify and the line-speed that characterises their defence tends to blow hot and cold. However, whatever the backs do, Ulster are bracing themselves for an abrasive nine-man approach from the visitors with either star scrum-half Pelissier or back-up Benoit Paillague looking to exploit any gaps the pack can create.
“Like nearly all French teams, form isn’t really much of an issue,” says Marshall, “they could lose five games on the trot and then put in a massive performance.
“We’ve definitely got to be on top of our game, otherwise it’s potentially a banana skin. No matter what, if it is a young team they send over, they’ll have a point to prove. So we just have to be fully focused on what we have to do.”
Whoever Galthie brings, Ulster go into this game with the confidence of having taken everything Montpellier could throw at them in their own back yard. At Ravenhill Ulster will hope to see more of the ball, set the tempo to their own liking and be forced to make much fewer tackles. However, their mind-set is that they will also have to do the same job again; bring the same work ethic and discipline that shocked the Top 14 side in October.
“The way we played, we sort of frustrated them. Usually the way they play is their pack generates quick ball and their quick guys do the business, but we frustrated them and didn’t let them get any momentum so we didn’t see as much from their backs as we normally would.
“I think it’s about doing the same this week; get in their faces and slowing their forwards up, getting them to ground early and not letting their backs play.”
As for Montpellier’s latest big-money import, Rene Ranger; Marshall has admired him from afar for many years. The former Auckland Blue has been taken out of his favoured wing position and dropped into the centre, but Ulster’s young tyro has certainly won’t be in awe of the All Black if they go head-to-head.
“I haven’t seen him play too much [in the centre]. I saw the Leicester game and I thought he looked a wee bit… unsure nearly and they exploited him at Welford Road. From watching him play for the Blues, he’s a quality player. It’ll be a good challenge playing against him, definitely.”
At least this afternoon we’ll know who Montpellier have tasked with taking down Europe’s current top seed.