The Ravenhill roar should be back in full force as Ulster, buoyed by last weekend’s first win of the season against Edinburgh, meet familiar pool rivals Stade Francais for the eighth time in European competition.
HEINEKEN CUP – POOL 4: Saturday, October 11
ULSTER v STADE FRANCAIS, Ravenhill, 3.30pm (live Sky Sports 2/HD2 Interactive)
Team News: Ulster coach Matt Williams has named his starting line-up for the province’s all-important Heineken Cup opener against Stade Francais at Ravenhill on Saturday.
Williams has made three changes to the starting fifteen that recorded Ulster’s first victory of the season against Edinburgh on Friday night, in front of a voal passionate Ravenhill crowd.
In the back row David Pollock drops out of the squad entirely with an injury, with former Ireland international Kieron Dawson starting at openside flanker.
Matt McCullough is named as extra back row cover on the replacements bench.
In the backs, Paddy Wallace returns to the Ulster fold, following his recent hamstring injury, which has kept him out of the team for the last number of weeks. Former All Black Paul Steinmetz is named on the bench.
Ireland scrum half Isaac Boss will start the game alongside Wallace, with youngster Cillian Willis dropping to the bench.
Fijian winger Timoci Nagusa has also been nudged out of the matchday squad.
Meanwhile, Stade Francais coach Ewen McKenzie has made five changes to the team that beat Montauban 34-16 in the French Championship last weekend.
David Attoub returns at tighthead prop, joining the experienced Rodrigo Roncero and Dimitri Szarzewski in the front row.
The Top 14 leaders have included Scotland international Simon Taylor in the second row, with Pierre Vigouroux dropping to the replacements bench.
The talented back row trio, led by captain Sergio Parisse, remains intact, but behind the scrum, there are three changes in personnel.
Argentinian star Juan Martin Hernandez moves to out-half, swapping positions with goal-kicker Lionel Beauxis who is on duty at full-back.
France international Brian Liebenberg will Guillaume Bousses as his centre partner. Winger Julien Arias and scrum half Noel Oelschig are the other new inclusions.
Stade, who have won all seven of their Top 14 games this season, have named Argentinian back rower Juan Leguizamon on the bench after his recovery from concussion.
But Australian rugby league convert Marc Gasnier is absent due to an ankle injury.
ULSTER: Bryn Cunningham; Clinton Schifcofske, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble; Niall O’Connor, Isaac Boss; Tom Court, Rory Best (capt), BJ Botha, Ed O’Donoghue, Ryan Caldwell, Stephen Ferris, Kieron Dawson, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Justin Fitzpatrick, Carlo Del Fava, Matt McCullough, Cillian Willis, Ian Humphreys, Paul Steinmetz.
STADE FRANCAIS: Lionel Beauxis; Julien Arias, Guillaume Bousses, Brian Liebenberg, Julien Saubade; Juan Martin Hernandez, Noel Oelschig; Rodrigo Roncero, Dimitri Szarzewski, David Attoub, Arnaud Marchois, Simon Taylor, Mauro Bergamasco, Pierre Rabadan, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements: Mathieu Blin, Sylvain Marconnet, Pierre Vigouroux, Juan Leguizamon, Terry Bouhraoua, Mathieu Bastareaud, Djibril Camara.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Whitehouse, Jonathan Mason (both Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 10/3; Draw: 22/1; Stade Francais to win: 1/5
Pre-Match Quotes: Matt Williams (Ulster) – “It is so much fun to be back involved in the Heineken Cup, it is the best competition in the world and to be playing against the best club team in the world at Ravenhill – a ground with so much European history – is just tremendous.
“This time around I’m enjoying both the competition more and the build-up around a Heineken Cup match at Ravenhill.
“I like that we have the underdog tag and I am enjoying the whole journey towards the game.
“I’m pleased that Paddy (Wallace) has returned to the side, he is one of our best players and has taken on the role of inside centre really well this season. I’m confident that he will play well within the team.
“Isaac (Boss) will start this game after being on the bench last week, he just offers a bit more of a physical presence and I think we will need that earlier in the game when Stade are coming at us hard.
“Cillian Willis has been playing really well and there is not a lot between the two of them but for this game, I just thought it best to start Isaac.
“David Pollock has knocked his knee again, same as earlier in the season. There is very little between David Pollock and Kieron Dawson, they are great players and it would be a very hard decision to leave either of them out.
“This season each time one of them has played, he has been our strongest player and, in my opinion, outstanding. Dawson was inspirational against the Ospreys and I have every faith in him for Saturday.”
Ewen McKenzie (Stade Francais) – “I went to watch Ulster play the Ospreys in Wales recently as I think it’s important to do as much homework as you can.
“And while the Top 14 is quite an intense competition, we are managing to find the time to prepare for the European tournament as well.
“As far as Ulster go, and looking at their results they have won one game so far, I watched them play against the Ospreys and, while the Welsh were too strong, maybe with a bit more preparation that can change quickly.
“The Heineken Cup is a much coveted trophy, so the pressure is on.
“It doesn’t help the nerves that we start against Ulster at Ravenhill at a ground where we’ve never won before.
“A week is a long time in rugby and I expect a very hard opening game.”
Current Form – Ulster (Magners League): Lost 16-9 at home to the Scarlets; Lost 16-15 away to the Cardiff Blues; Lost 16-14 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 43-0 away to the Ospreys; Won 13-9 at home to Edinburgh
Stade Francais (Top 14): Won 31-9 away to Dax; Won 27-22 at home to Mont de Marsan; Won 26-11 away to Perpignan; Won 19-13 away to Toulon; Won 37-16 at home to Brive; Won 32-25 away to Bourgoin; Won 34-16 at home to Montauban
Previous European Meetings: 7
Saturday, December 11, 2004 – Pool 6 – Ulster 18 Stade Francais 10, Ravenhill
Saturday, December 4, 2004 – Pool 6 – Stade Francais 30 Ulster 10, Stade Jean Bouin
Saturday, January 24, 2004 – Pool 1 – Stade Francais 13 Ulster 10, Stade Jean Bouin
Friday, December 12, 2003 – Pool 1 – Ulster 22 Stade Francais 20, Ravenhill
Friday, November 2, 2001 – Pool 2 – Ulster 19 Stade Francais 16, Ravenhill
Saturday, October 27, 2001 – Pool 2 – Stade Francais 40 Ulster 11, Stade Jean Bouin
Saturday, January 9, 1999 – Semi-Final – Ulster 33 Stade Francais 27, Ravenhill
Heineken Cup Records:
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2004/05: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2002/03: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool B
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool C
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool B
Stade Francais –
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2003/04: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Reached the quarter-finals
1999/00: Reached the quarter-finals
1998/99: Reached the semi-finals
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ulster to win by less than 7 points