It’s a baptism of fire for Robert Baloucoune as he will make his first Heineken Champions Cup appearance tomorrow against Racing 92.

As expected the big guns are back ahead of what could prove to be a decisive game in Ulster’s Champions Cup run this season with Dan McFarland making 13 changes in total.

Given the weekend off against Leinster, the improving front row of Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best and Marty Moore returns for tomorrow’s match. Alan O’Connor is partnered by Kieran Treadwell in the second row while it’s the familiar back row of Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee.

John Cooney and Billy Burns start at scrum half and out half respectively while the dangerous pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison will link up in the midfield. Jacob Stockdale starts on the left wing after missing all three interpro matches with youngster Baloucoune on the right. Louis Ludik has barely put a foot wrong since returning from injury and starts at fullback.

Racing are one of the form sides in the Top14 this season. They’re coming off the back of a home win over Toulon in which they stacked their side and they will take confidence from the fact they’ve only lost twice on the road this season. With a home match against the Scarlets in round six, it’s safe to say that they will top the group.

One major absence is that of Teddy Thomas. The French international limped off in their win over Toulon and was confirmed to play no part in this fixture early in the week. Nevertheless the classy Simon Zebo takes his place on the left wing with Brice Dulin coming in at fullback.

Racing’s scrum dominated Ulster’s in the first fixture but Georgian Guram Gogichashvili is the only survivor for their trip to Belfast. Still, the 153kg Ben Tameifuna starts at tight head and will pose a huge test for O’Sullivan. In the back row Wenceslas Lauret and Antonie Claassen were impressive and retain their jerseys.

Form and morale may point towards a Racing win however French teams haven’t had much joy coming to Belfast for European matches over the years – Toulon (2014) and Bordeaux Begles (2017) are the only French sides to have come to Kingspan/Ravenhill in the last ten years and won.

Racing are an incredibly talented attacking side but they do have a tendency to switch off. I’ve no doubt that Ulster will create chances but the real task will be weathering the Racing storm when it arrives. Despite a hammering in D4 last week, the mood has been positive ahead of this game. Players have taken to social media to drum up support and increase the excitement levels ahead of tomorrow’s match.

I think we could be in for a great day at Kingspan tomorrow but looking at the wider picture, what do Ulster have to do to qualify and do we need to support other sides this weekend?

As it stands ahead of round five…

PTS DIFF TF
1 Racing 92 19 66 16
2 Saracens 18 67 14
3 Toulouse 17 26 13
4 Edinburgh 15 51 12
5 Munster 12 38 7
6 Leinster 15 82 19
7 Glasgow 14 38 11
8 Ulster 14 -2 13
9 Montpellier 11 14 13
10 Castres 9 -25 9

The teams in bold are on course to receive a home quarter final while the teams in Italics are on course to be playing away. The space separates the group winners from the runners up.

Ulster are in a much better position this year compared to last season where they were relying on results going their way in the final game. A win and they take a giant leap towards the knockout rounds.

While Pool 2 (Munster, Castres, Exeter and Gloucester) is the one to watch this weekend as it is possible for all four sides to mathematically qualify as group winners, it looks highly unlikely that a second side will qualify as Munster, who lead the group currently, have less points that Ulster.

Likewise, a resurgence from Toulon in Pool 5 would massively boost Ulster’s chances of progressing. Sitting bottom of the group with six points, qualification is almost impossible for the French Riviera side. Ruan Pienaar’s Montpellier sit in second place on 11 points with Edinburgh at the top on 15. Last year’s Top14 finalists will be eyeing a bonus point win over Newcastle Falcons to set up a showdown at Murrayfield against Edinburgh.

Gloucester Tonight – 19:45 Munster
Montpellier Sat – 13:00 Newcastle
Leinster 13:00 Toulouse
Bath 15:15 Wasps
Ulster 15:15 Racing 92
Scarlets 17:30 Leicester Tigers
Toulon 17:30 Edinburgh
Exeter Sun – 13:00 Castres
Lyon 15:15 Saracens
Glasgow 15:15 Cardiff

Honestly, two draws in Pool 2 would be massive for Ulster however as this is not likely, a Munster win tonight would make it impossible for Gloucester (8 points) to qualify who have to travel to Castres in the final round. An Exeter win would make it very difficult for Castres to qualify and it would be ideal if the Chiefs could deny the French side a losing bonus point without gaining a try bonus point themselves.

In Pool 5, a Newcastle win would peg Montpellier back while an Edinburgh loss would mean that Ulster have more points than the leaders in two groups and all but secure a passage through to the next round. Likewise, if Cardiff were to upset Glasgow on Sunday at Scotstoun, Ulster would move into seventh in the seedings while a Leinster loss at home to Toulouse, coupled with this result would see Ulster finish the weekend as the best runner up.

The FRU predicts: An Ulster win. We’ve a good side out and with the Kingspan faithful in full voice, I think Ulster will produce another of those European nights.

Ulster Racing 92
Louis Ludik 15 Brice Dulin
Robert Baloucoune 14 Simon Zebo
Will Addison 13 Virimi Vakatawa
Stuart McCloskey 12 Henry Chavancy
Jacob Stockdale 11 Juan Imhoff
Billy Burns 10 Finn Russell
John Cooney 9 Maxime Machenaud
Eric O’Sullivan 1 Guram Gogichashvili
Rory Best 2 Dmitri Szarzewski
Marty Moore 3 Ben Tameifuna
Alan O’Connor 4 Bernard Le Roux
Kieran Treadwell 5 Leone Nakarawa
Sean Reidy 6 Wenceslas Lauret
Jordi Murphy 7 Baptiste Chouzenoux
Marcell Coetzee 8 Antonie Claassen
Rob Herring 16 Teddy Baubigny
Andy Warwick 17 Vasil Kakovin
Ross Kane 18 Georges-Henri Colombe-Reazel
Ian Nagle 19 Boris Palu
Nick Timoney 20 Fabien Sarconnie
Dave Shanahan 21 Teddy Iribaren
Michael Lowry 22 Olivier Klemenczak
Darren Cave 23 Ben Volavola

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