Ulster hoping the pendulum will swing their way in Toulouse

Skills coach Dan Soper knows what his side are up against with French giants

Ulster will be seeking a huge swing in fortune as they take off to Toulouse at the weekend for the first leg of their Heineken Champions Cup last 16 tie on Saturday (3.15pm Irish time).

With two recent defeats on the road in South Africa, the province are hoping that the French giants won’t begin to make it look something like a losing streak.

It was the first time that Ulster had dropped consecutive league games since their first two matches coming out of lockdown in August of 2020. They are keen not to make it three.

The province confirmed in their latest injury update that their only doubt is winger Ethan McIlroy, who sustained a concussion in last week’s defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria.


He will undergo the return-to-play protocols. However, it seems likely that the trip to the Stade Municipal de Toulouse will come too soon for him to feature.

That specifically will not cause skills coach Dan Soper too much grief.

“We are fortunate that we’ve got a lot of outside backs who are great quality, so we are able to keep going the way we want to play,” said Soper.

Robert Baloucoune is available for selection, having not travelled to South Africa, with Craig Gilroy, Rob Lyttle and Ben Moxham also hoping to start.

“Some of them bring slightly different strengths to what we are trying to do. So, you try and give them an opportunity to try and highlight their strengths. It could be their speed, others it could be their kicking game, others broken field counterattack, so we have certain things that we want to stay true to in terms of how we play.”

High-spec players

Toulouse might be thinking the same thing and, with Soper pointing to the last meeting between the sides at Kingspan Stadium in December 2020, few needed convincing of the high-spec players in the Toulouse squad.

It was the star quality of Antoine Dupont and Cheslin Kolbe, who has since moved to Toulon, which made the difference between the teams as the international stars provided three sensational solo scores to earn them the bonus point victory.

“They have so many world beaters, guys who can pull something out of nothing. Over the years we have seen that,” said Soper, pointing out that Ulster switched off momentarily, which was enough for the pair to take their surgeon’s knife to the match.

“We were really disappointed not to get results in South Africa because we’re in a good position in the league. But we’ve maybe missed a wee bit of an opportunity in that we could have got ourselves further up the league in terms of closer to Leinster, maybe pull away from the pack.

“What we were really pleased with was for a lot of parts of those games we did a lot of things really well, controlled territory and position in what were challenging conditions in heat and altitude.”

Soper hopes those same conditions will have provided one of the vital ingredients outside the technical abilities of his side.

“The weather gives you opportunity to spend a bit of time on the pitch,” he said. “You can take your time to work through things. That and the guys got a bit of time to spend together and that bit of bonding that goes on.”


He as much as anyone understands the breadth of the task ahead and, with a number of French players coming back in with all the confidence a Grand Slam-winning French team can give, Ulster travel as they often do at this stage of European competition: optimistic and realistic.

But giving away penalties at the breakdown is one area that needs attention after South Africa. Soper did hint there was a difference of opinion over the refereeing.

“The breakdown is always such a combative area that you can interpret in lots of different ways, so we just stick to our process,” he said.

“The guys have clear expectations of what we expect both sides of the ball. It’s something we know we always have to work on. It’s such an important part of generating quick ball and that’s the key to successful attack.”

Amen to that.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times