Heineken Champions Cup: Ulster could face 'no bigger task', says centre McCloskey
Last updated on .From the section Irish Rugby
|Heineken Champions Cup Pool A|
|Venue: Stade Marcel Michelin Date: Saturday, 11 December Kick-off: 17:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website from 17:15 GMT, plus match report|
Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey says the Irish province could face "no bigger task" than taking on Clermont Auvergne away in their Champions Cup opener.
McCloskey is a veteran of 33 games for Ulster in European competition.
"We expect it to be physical with Clermont strong at the breakdown but games in Europe are always brilliant occasions," said McCloskey.
"All my best memories of playing for Ulster are in Europe and on our day we have the strength to beat any team."
"We are definitely not one of the favourites [for the competition] but if you reach the knockout stages anything can happen."
This year's European Champions Cup has retained last season's Covid-affected competition's format with the 24 teams divided into two pools of 12.
The eight highest-ranked clubs from each pool will qualify for the knockout stages, with the last-16 taking place over two legs and the final being held in Marseille on 28 May.
Ulster's most recent encounters with Top 14 side Clermont - who are led by Jono Gibbes, current head coach Dan McFarland's predecessor at Ulster - saw them earn a home win apiece during the 2019-20 campaign as both teams progressed to the quarter-finals.
'Every game now really does matter'
Ulster travel to the Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin on the back of a disappointing 19-13 defeat by Ospreys in the United Rugby Championship last week and McCloskey knows to expect a hostile, partisan atmosphere inside the French stadium on Saturday.
"It is one of the best club stadiums about - any place like that with a big crowd and a good atmosphere is always nice to play at," added the six-times capped Ireland international.
"I've watched a few clips [of European games] from down the years and they bring back good memories. Full houses at home and away, they are always good games.
"Personally I don't like the present format, I preferred the old format with six group games. I assume they will change back in the coming years but now every game really does matter."
Ulster last reached the knockout stages in 2020, when they lost to Toulouse at the quarter-final stage, while Clermont, currently occupying a mid-table position in the Top 14, boast a fine European pedigree, having been beaten finalists in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Ulster's trip to Clermont is followed by a home contest with Northampton at Kingspan Stadium on 17 December.
Former Ulster fly-half Ian Humphreys, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Sportsound Extra Time:
"The difference when you play in Europe is the pace and the physicality - your decision-making time is cut down dramatically.
"You need to be very clear in what you do. Any hesitation is punished and because you are playing against the top tier teams any mistakes usually result in conceding points.
"It is going to be hugely physical. That Clermont pack is always huge and they'll try to make a big impression on Ulster and try to bully them.
"Clermont will try to dictate the game, make sure they play territory in the right position, try to put Ulster under huge pressure and try to force mistakes.
"These games are won up front and if you let teams like this drive into your 22 and they get the rolling maul going, get their big ball carriers into midfield, then it can be a long afternoon.
"Ulster's backs are very exciting, but it's just whether they can lay that platform for them to be able to release the backs.
"It's important that defensively they are on the money - discipline wise they have to make sure they are not giving away cheap penalties."