After a long wait, the European Rugby Champions Cup made its return last weekend with the first knockout round, and one of the standout matches saw defending champions Stade Toulousain host an Ulster side who are increasingly looking like potential successors to their throne, having won all four of their pool games. Both sides came into the game on the back of defeats, with Ulster suffering back-to-back away losses to South African sides Stormers and Bulls in the United Rugby Championship, whilst Toulouse are currently fifth in the Top 14 table, 11 points behind leaders Montpellier, and lost at Castres during the previous weekend.
This tactical analysis will look at both teams’ performances and tactics in this first leg, breaking down Toulouse’s shortcomings and how Ulster were on the front foot from the early stages. The analysis will also look at the French side’s defensive strength during the first half, which allowed them to lead at the break.
Toulouse coach Ugo Mola made seven changes from the defeat to Castres, with three of them in the midfield. Only Argentina winger Juan Cruz Mallia kept his place, with centre Sofiane Guitoune dropping to the bench and Lucas Tauzin and Dimitri Delibes missing out altogether. In came Zack Holmes, who is more commonly used as a fly-half, and Pita Ahki, whilst France winger Matthis Lebel was handed a start on the other side of the pitch. In the front row, props Rodrigue Neti and Dorian Aldegheri started at loosehead and tighthead respectively, with France star Cyril Baille and former All Black Charlie Faumuina both dropping to the bench, whilst lock Richie Arnold was replaced by his twin brother Rory, who was joined in the second row by Emmanuel Meafou. Thibaud Flament switched to flanker, with Alban Placines only deemed fit enough for the bench.
Ulster boss Dan McFarland, meanwhile, made eight alterations after their trip to South Africa. Loosehead prop Andy Warwick, Wales hooker Bradley Roberts, Ireland duo Kieran Treadwell and Jordi Murphy, scrum-half Nathan Doak, fly-half Ian Madigan, centre Luke Marshall and versatile back Ethan McIlroy all dropped out of the starting XV (all except Madigan and McIlroy were named as replacements). Into the front row came Eric O’Sullivan, who was on the bench last time out, and Rob Herring, with those two starting at loosehead and hooker respectively. Alan O’Connor partnered captain Iain Henderson in the second row whilst Marcus Rea was given a start at flanker and Ireland half-back pair John Cooney and Billy Burns partnered each other behind the pack. In the midfield, Stuart McCloskey came in to partner James Hume, whilst exciting talent Robert Baloucoune started on the wing.
Ulster on the front foot
From the first minute, it was clear that Ulster had gone to Toulouse to win, and were always looking for where they could hurt their opponents and keep them as far away from their try line as possible.
Here, France full-back Thomas Ramos has the ball after receiving a pass from Pita Ahki, but Robert Baloucoune has got up well to make the tackle before Ramos can look for space ahead of him to move into. This was important as there was plenty of open area available which Toulouse could have exploited, but the speed that Baloucoune got up to Ramos meant that the Toulouse player was caught on the back foot and unable to make any ground.
It wasn’t as if Toulouse were moving the ball around the pitch really slowly either, because Ahki’s pass to Ramos here was well-timed and there was plenty of good ball distribution from the hosts in the opening stages of the game; it was just that Ulster were thinking quicker and could see the dangers, meaning that they could get up to their opponents early on. On this occasion though, Toulouse were playing with an advantage, so it didn’t matter.
Once Juan Cruz Mallia had been sent off for a poor challenge on Ulster winger Ben Moxham, the Irish province knew that they had to maintain that early pressure in order to take full advantage of their numerical superiority, which meant that they needed to keep recycling the ball at speed and never allow Toulouse any opportunity to win it back.
This was what gave Ulster their opening try, shown here, with quick hands from James Hume leading to Matthis Lebel being caught out here, as he was trying to cover two positions and wasn’t sure whether to stay close to his teammate or stay wide and prevent Ulster scoring outside him. This momentary hesitation was also key in the try being scored, with Baloucoune getting the ball over the line in the available gap, shown by the yellow line. However, we need to give credit to Hume here, because it was his pass that created this try.
That try seemed to give Ulster more confidence, leading to a greater dominance in the first half from the visitors. Baloucoune, who was simply unstoppable all game, again found space here and broke through the gap left open by Toulouse, with Zack Holmes and Lebel again caught out, and this would have led to another try without Ramos’ excellent tackle and Peato Mauvaka’s quick thinking to stop John Cooney from starting another attack directly afterwards. However, once again, this was a clear sign that Toulouse were there for the taking in this game, having not looked in it since their opening try from Meafou, and Ulster had the skills and quality to open them up time and time again.
The pressure that Ulster were putting on their opponents didn’t let up in the second half either, as their key players kept pushing and kept looking to create opportunities with the ball. Here, Hume, who was excellent all game, put in a small jump when running forwards, which drew France back rower Francois Cros towards him and out of position, opening up a gap for Stuart McCloskey to run through, with fly-half Romain Ntamack unable to react in time.
Whilst this was a really well-worked try from the visitors, it was the first situation where we thought Toulouse could have done better, with the other examples being down to them still adjusting to being one player down. However, here, France star Ntamack was on the back foot and evidently didn’t expect Cros to move infield here, meaning that he was in no position to prevent McCloskey from running between them. The fact that he was then facing inside meant that he also didn’t notice Baloucoune running through behind him, although he didn’t then make a reasonable attempt to try and rectify his error. As a result, Ramos was caught in a 2-v-1, with McCloskey setting up Baloucoune for his second try of the game.
Toulouse’s defensive strength
We mentioned how Toulouse had a numerical disadvantage for most of this match, but they did still play well and at times look capable of winning this game, especially with their strong defensive performance.
One area that they were particularly good at was their rucking and counter-rucking, with big tackles being made and players quick to get over the ball and win turnovers. Here, Ntamack is bringing down McCloskey, with Hume subsequently trying to get in and secure possession.
However, the Ireland centre was the only one showing any urgency, with other Ulster players slow to react to the tackle, and this was all the invitation that Toulouse needed, with Rodrigue Neti and Thibaud Flament subsequently piling in and taking control of the ball. This showed how, despite being a player down and despite being second-best for large periods of the game, Toulouse still had some of their key weapons available to them, which Ulster perhaps didn’t realise early enough.
Ulster were also having a problem at lineouts, with Australia lock Rory Arnold constantly getting up and making his presence known in the air. However, when Ulster did manage to get the ball down, they struggled to get their rolling maul going, with Rob Herring consequently breaking away on his own and trying to gain ground, but the lack of support meant that he was tackled easily by home players each time. Here, South Africa international Rynhardt Elstadt and captain and 2022 Six Nations Player of the Tournament Antoine Dupont have combined to end his hopeful run forwards, before Mauvaka got hold of the loose ball and won a penalty for his team.
There was a lot of strength on show from the home side when defending, particularly in the first half, and it did look at this stage as if they weren’t going to go down without a contest being had. At this stage of the game, that was really important, as Ulster had gone through a period of play when they had not been at their best, so Toulouse needed to keep control of proceedings and tire their opponents out.
Game management was also a key strength of Toulouse’s in the middle part of the game, with kicks being delivered up the field by Ntamack and Elstadt (the latter of which is shown here) in order to slow the game down as it neared half-time, looking to gain territory and force Ulster into continually starting from the back. Toulouse were also showing signs of tiredness at this point, and understandably so, and this was seen as the best way to stay in front at the break and give them a chance to refresh.
A penalty kick on the stroke of half-time did give them a more comfortable half-time lead, but it was notable that they stopped competing so physically with the ball and instead went for territory in these stages.
Toulouse’s poor play
However, whilst there were some good parts to Toulouse’s play, they simply didn’t show enough to get past Ulster. We have already looked at one occasion when they let the Irish province break through them too easily, and this section of the analysis will highlight a few more times in the second half when they could have done better.
What had been clear during the first half was that Toulouse had had some good moments but had not had their overall rhythm. In the second half though, this was much better, with Rory Arnold making a great run through here after finding space ahead of him, and the build-up to this attack involved nearly every home player, with some good tackling, passing and spatial awareness on show. This particular situation would have led to a try for Lebel, had there not been a slight knock-on by Dupont on the ground a couple of phases beforehand, and that is the key point here; small moments which were costing the defending champions.
The home side were visibly feeling the pressure in the closing stages, knowing that the game was slipping away from them, and that led to more moments of poor quality. Here, Cyril Baille, who had come on in the second half, was looking to find a teammate with this pass, but ended up throwing it behind and allowing it to bounce off the ground. This immediately slowed Toulouse’s attack down and meant that they lost their forward momentum, with Ulster having a chance to gather the ball and launch a counter-attack; only a good recovery run by Ntamack prevented this from happening, as shown by the yellow arrow.
However, yet again, it was an individual error that let the home side down after several phases of good play, meaning that they couldn’t turn promising situations into points, and another mistake later on allowed Baloucoune to intercept a long pass by Dupont to the other replacement prop, Charlie Faumuina (although there were questions over whether the winger was onside or not).
One notable change made by Toulouse during the second half, which looked to be tactical, was to stop challenging in the air for lineouts, with Rory Arnold no longer going up and trying to steal possession. As a result, Ulster were allowed to bring the ball down under no opposing pressure and then to move it out into space with more success, and this situation led directly to a try for the visitors, scored by replacement loosehead Andy Warwick.
Given that this was the try that got Ulster back in front and ultimately contributed to their eventual win, it was clear that the alteration didn’t work for Toulouse and only made it easier for the away side, with some of their more powerful players like South Africa star Duane Vermeulen being able to have more of an influence on the game.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the performances of both Toulouse and Ulster in this Champions Cup match, seeing why Ulster managed to get the better of their hosts. Toulouse will feel that they weren’t quite at it on the day, which has largely been the story of their season, and will know that they need to play better if they want to have any chance of retaining their title. However, Ulster have proven this season that they are a team to be feared, and this result will only serve to increase their reputation as potential European champions.
It should be mentioned that this is only the first leg of the tie, with both teams locking horns once again in Belfast on Saturday evening, so there will be a chance for Toulouse to improve on the issues we have highlighted in this analysis, and Ulster will need to be wary of how they respond to this defeat.