South African World Cup winner and Ulster’s latest signing, Duane Vermeulen, has been named in the team to face Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday (kick-off 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time).
Tomorrow’s clash is the first of back-to-back Heineken Champions Cup weekends, with Ulster welcoming Northampton Saints to Kingspan Stadium next Friday night. A limited number of tickets are still available at ulster.rugby/buytickets.
The Springbok star is among five changes to the Ulster side that lost to the Ospreys last weekend. Andrew Warwick and Rob Herring come into the front row, alongside 23-year-old tighthead Tom O’Toole.
The province’s front row ranks took a hit in Swansea with Bradley Roberts (ankle), Martin Moore (concussion) and Tom Stewart (foot) all sustaining injuries that made them unavailable for selection this week.
With Iain Henderson (hamstring) also unfortunately missing out, Alan O’Connor will captain the Ulstermen from the second row, where he is partnered by Kieran Treadwell.
Marcus Rea gets the nod at blindside flanker, Nick Timoney is retained at openside and the newly-arrived Vermeulen packs down in the number 8 jersey.
Behind the pack, Ireland international James Hume is the only change to the back-line. Billy Burns and John Cooney are retained as the half-back duo, and Hume lines up outside Stuart McCloskey in midfield.
Ethan McIlroy, who only turned 21 in August, Robert Baloucoune (24) and Michael Lowry (23) make up a dynamic looking back-three.
The Ulster coaches have opted for a six-two split on the bench, with Ireland-capped back rower Sean Reidy in line to make his 150th appearance if called upon.
John Andrew, the fit-again Jack McGrath, Ross Kane, Sam Carter and Greg Jones are the other forwards options. Nathan Doak and Stewart Moore, both Champions Cup debutants, provide the back-line reinforcements.
Head coach Dan McFarland commented: “Clermont are a great team with a lot of superstar players who are able to make superstar plays. That makes the task for us one of teamwork and ensuring we can bring collective pressure with the way that we play and put that pressure onto them.
“It’s a brilliant task and a very difficult one. To play in that environment (at Stade Marcel Michelin) is absolutely fantastic but the challenge is huge.
On both occasions when we played them (in the pool stages in 2019/20), they demonstrated that they have individuals who can break the game open and create something from nothing.
“In the first game we played here (at Kingspan Stadium), we scored a good maul try and John Cooney scored an excellent individual try as well.
“We had to put in some unbelievable defence – Robert Baloucoune’s try-saving tackle on George Moala was a particular highlight.
“I can’t over-emphasise the quality of the challenge they pose. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve been able to bring back in some of their star backs, Alivereti Raka, Damian Penaud and Camille Lopez, so we know the challenge we’ve got but we’re looking forward to it.”
ULSTER (v Clermont Auvergne): Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (capt), 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.