Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
Ulster Rugby v Toulouse | Friday 11 December | Kingspan Stadium | 21:45
The group stage of the European Rugby Champions Cup enters its midway point this week, which for this Ulster squad means its do or die time. The Irish club sit at the foot of Pool 1 without a point to their name. Their opponents for this weekend have had a much better start to their campaign and currently occupy second spot on the log. However, with Saracens likely to top the group, Toulouse will know that they are going to need to rack up as many points as they can in order to advance to the next round as one of the three best-placed runners-up.
With both sides struggling to hit their straps in Europe, this game is likely to be a close-run affair.
To Win Match (80 Mins)
Ulster (-7.5) 9/10
Toulouse (+7.5) 9/10
Ulster received some good news this week with skipper Rory Best returning to fitness. While the return of the burly Irishmen is a massive plus for the Irish outfit, his return will count for little if his fellow veterans can't up their performances.
Ruan Pienaar seems to have taken his unimpressive form in a Springbok jumper back to his club. The former Sharks man has struggled to make any real impact when he's taken to a rugby field this year. His box kicking has been woeful, and while he's never really possessed the crisp passing abilities that the likes of Will Guinea and Fourie Du Preez have, he moves the ball a lot slower than he did in his heyday with Natal. Another former Shark who's enduring a bit of a torrid season in the Ulster Jersey is Louis Ludick. The years seem to be catching up with the utility back. He's been culpable of a few horrendous handling errors this season and his lack of pace becomes more evident with each passing week.
With the likes of Pienaar and Ludick struggling to influence games a lot of the creative pressure is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of pivot, Paddy Jackson. The 23-year old has been in impressive form for the Ulstermen. He may well have to play the role of catalyst for his side if they are to turn their season around.
With Pienaar's sluggish delivery, Jackson is going to have to hope his forwards lay a decent platform for his scrumhalf to clear the ball from. If their forwards can't lay a clean base, then Jackson is going to have Thierry Dusautoir breathing down his neck for 80 minutes.
While they haven't been at their best, Toulouse have still given a decent account of themselves in the tournament thus far. While they did suffer an opening day defeat to Saracens, it must be remembered that the horrific attacks in Paris had occurred less than 48 hours before the French team took to the field. And you could see it had an effect on the players. They bounced back from that defeat with a hard-fought win over an Oyonnax side that's producing one of the better seasons the club has ever seen.
Toulouse will be eager to get their second win under their belts this weekend and they definitely have the squad to do this. They possess one of the most experienced back rows in the game. It's also one of the most well-rounded trios: Dusatoir plays the duel role of fetcher and enforcer, while Picamoles is the ball carrier, and Yacouba Camara is the tearaway flanker.
It's not only their loose trio that's well-rounded, though. Their backline is mostly made up of experienced internationals who have the ability to vary their games. While Toby Flood has never been the most exciting rugby player he is perfect for Toulouse. The inside centre is quick off the mark and reads the game well. His partnership with Gael Fickou has been one of Toulouse's greatest strengths.
If I'm being brutally honest, Ulster don't have the tools to compete with this impressive looking Toulouse backline. They may be able to get the ascendancy up front, but that's most likely to be negated by Toulouse's loose trio. Back the French side to claim the spoils at 11/10.
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