History beckons for Ulster if they can overcome the challenge of Castres Olympique on Saturday afternoon. A first ever competitive win on French soil would see them secure a home draw in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
HEINEKEN CUP POOL 4: Saturday, January 19
CASTRES OLYMPIQUE (3rd) v ULSTER (1st), Stade Pierre Antoine, 2.35pm local time/1.35pm Irish time (live Sky Sports 3/HD3/Canal+/BBC Radio Ulster MW/highlights TG4)
Team News: Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made four changes in personnel for the province’s final match of the Heineken Cup pool stages away to Castres Olympique on Saturday.
For the trip to the Stade Pierre Antoine, the 22-year-old Michael Allen will make his first Heineken Cup start on the left wing with Craig Gilroy switching to full-back to replace the injured Jared Payne.
Payne has been nursing a groin injury and will be a notable absentee as the Ulstermen chase their first European win on French soil.
Paddy Jackson has shaken off an ankle complaint, but the youngster will start on the replacements bench with his out-half berth being taken by the versatile Ruan Pienaar.
Pienaar’s switch from scrum half opens the way for the recently-married Paul Marshall to reclaim the number 9 jersey – he scored a brace of tries against Castres in October.
Neil McComb has forced his way into the second row alongside Lewis Stevenson, who has been called up to the Ireland training squad. It will be McComb’s first Heineken Cup start after three previous appearances off the bench.
Young Ireland international Iain Henderson makes way for McComb, while Roger Wilson slots in at number 8 for knee injury victim Nick Williams.
Ulster, who lead Pool 4 by five points from Northampton Saints, have already qualified for the quarter-finals but they will want to guarantee a home draw in the last-eight by beating Castres this weekend.
With many permutations with regards home quarter-finals, centre Darren Cave believes the best thing to do is for the team to focus on winning Saturday’s match and forget about results elsewhere.
“Well, the beauty of the Heineken Cup is that you can sit there with a calculator all day and worry about where you’re going to be, but from my perspective this rugby team just wants to win matches,” he said.
“So, a home quarter-final would be brilliant but the bottom line is that we want to win matches. We haven’t won in France before in a competitive match.
“It’s going to be a tough one but it’s one we are looking to win. We did it at the start of the season with a pre-season win over Bayonne, so there’s no reason why we can’t do it again.”
Meanwhile, one of the players who helped the Ulstermen reach last season’s final will be lining out against them in Castres.
Former Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg, who is stationed at number 8, will be facing Ulster for the second time since his departure from Belfast in the summer.
He was on the Ravenhill pitch for Ulster’s bonus point 41-17 defeat of Castres in the opening round, and will be hoping to turn the tables on his former team-mates.
The Castres management have made eight changes to the team that started last weekend’s 18-12 loss away to Northampton Saints, during which goal-kicking scrum half Rory Kockott landed four penalties.
Pierre Bernard comes in for Brice Dulin at full-back with Seremaia Bai getting the nod at outside centre and Rémi Tales taking over from New Zealander Daniel Kirkpatrick at out-half.
It is all change in the back row with Wannenburg, the powerful Piula Faasalele and Mathieu Babillot joining forces, and hooker Marc-Antoine Rallier and lock Matthias Rolland, the team captain, are the other returning forwards.
CASTRES OLYMPIQUE: Pierre Bernard; Max Evans, Seremaia Bai, Rémi Lamerat, Marcel Garvey; Rémi Tales, Rory Kockott; Yannick Forestier, Marc-Antoine Rallier, Anton Peikrishvili, Matthias Rolland (capt), Christophe Samson, Mathieu Babillot, Piula Faasalele, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Brice Mach, Saimone Taumoepeau, Mihaïta Lazar, Iosefa Tekori, Thierry Lacrampe, Jannie Bornman, Paul Bonnefond, Marc Andreu.
ULSTER: Craig Gilroy; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Michael Allen; Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry (capt), Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Iain Henderson, Mike McComish, Michael Heaney, Paddy Jackson, Chris Cochrane.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Sean Brickell, Jonathan Mason (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Derek Bevan (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Castres Olympique to win: 6/5; Draw: 20/1; Ulster to win: 8/11
Pre-Match Quotes: Mark Anscombe (Ulster) – “It’s a credit to the guys that they have achieved that (reaching the last-eight). They’ve achieved a lot of good things this year.
“But we set out a goal to get a home quarter-final, so we’re certainly not resting on our laurels and we’re going to Castres with a job at hand.
“We want to reward our fans and people with a home quarter-final and if we don’t do that I feel we will have let ourselves and the supporters down.
“Like a lot of French teams, Castres are very strong at home and have only lost one game at home this year. From what we’ve seen of them this year and the way they played in the first round, they have a formidable forward pack.
“We know where our work is going to be at (on Saturday) and if we don’t front up then it’s going to be a long day.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position and we have to make sure we go there and don’t relax thinking we’ve made the quarters.
“I think if we go there and don’t perform it’s a little bit of a setback. Yes we’ve ticked a box and qualified at the top of the pool, but we want a home quarter-final, simple as that.”
Current Form – Castres Olympique – (Top 14 Championship): Lost 23-22 away to Toulouse; Won 30-13 at home to Grenoble; Won 31-10 at home to Bayonne; Drew 20-20 away to Stade Francais; Won 28-13 at home to Biarritz Olympique; Lost 33-12 away to Toulon; Lost 19-12 away to Montpellier; Won 16-13 at home to Clermont Auvergne; (Heineken Cup): Lost 41-17 away to Ulster; Won 21-16 at home to Northampton Saints; (Top 14 Championship): Won 22-14 away to Agen; Won 38-36 at home to Perpignan; Won 16-13 away to Bordeaux-Begles; Won 31-15 away to Mont-de-Marsan; (Heineken Cup): Lost 9-6 away to Glasgow Warriors; Won 10-8 at home to Glasgow Warriors; (Top 14 Championship): Won 31-10 at home to Racing Metro 92; Lost 18-16 at home to Toulouse; Lost 14-12 away to Grenoble; (Heineken Cup): Lost 18-12 away to Northampton Saints
Ulster – (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 18-10 at home to Glasgow Warriors; Won 16-13 away to the Ospreys; Won 20-19 at home to Munster; Won 48-19 away to the Cardiff Blues; Won 25-0 at home to Connacht; (Heineken Cup): Won 41-17 at home to Castres Olympique; Won 19-8 away to Glasgow Warriors; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 46-19 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 45-20 at home to Edinburgh; Won 27-25 away to Zebre; Won 16-15 away to Benetton Treviso; Won 19-12 away to the Scarlets; (Heineken Cup): Won 25-6 away to Northampton Saints; Lost 10-9 at home to Northampton Saints; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 27-19 at home to Leinster; Lost 24-10 away to Munster; Won 47-17 at home to the Scarlets; (Heineken Cup): Won 23-6 at home to Glasgow Warriors
Top Scorers – 2012/13 Heineken Cup: Castres Olympique – Points: Rory Kockott 24; Tries: Marc Andreu, Marcel Garvey, Paul Bonnefond, Antoine Claassen, Yannick Caballero 1 each; Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 49; Tries: Paul Marshall, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne 2 each
Previous European Meetings: 1
Friday, October 12, 2012 – Pool 4 – Ulster 41 Castres Olympique 17, Ravenhill
Match Facts And Figures –
– Castres’ only Heineken Cup round 6 victory since 2002 came at home to London Wasps (21-15) during the 2008/09 season
– Castres have won three of their last four home games in the Heineken Cup
– Ulster have never won in 14 previous visits to France in the Heineken Cup. The closest they came was a 35-all draw in Toulouse in October 2000
– Ulster boast a tackle completion rate of 92%, a competition high
– Castres’ scrum success rate lies at 98% after five rounds of competition, comfortably the highest percentage in the Heineken Cup
Heineken Cup Records:
Castres Olympique –
2011/12: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2004/05: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2001/02: Reached the semi-finals
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool D
2010/11: Reached the quarter-finals
2009/10: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
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