Wednesday 18 July 2018

Best on bench for Ulster as Kiss looks for experience to halt newcomers' march

Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It would be understandable for casual viewers of European rugby to see a lesser-known French side on the schedule and find something better to do with their time.

But La Rochelle are different. Last week, the newcomers to the Champions Cup turned up at the Stoop for their debut and lit up the competition. After 45 minutes, they'd secured the bonus point.

Tomorrow, Ulster go to the Atlantic coast knowing they have a very difficult task on their hands. A losing bonus point would be a fine result as they look to return to the quarter-finals.

With Wasps and Harlequins both struggling, there is an opportunity for two teams to qualify from this pool. La Rochelle look nailed on, Ulster can follow on their coat-tails.

Led by former All Black Jason Eaton, La Rochelle have a pack that can mix it in the league of slug-fests. But their backline has plenty of creativity and can cut teams open at will.

"From my experience last year in France with Clermont, La Rochelle are individually one of the most skilful, X-factor teams in France," said Ulster assistant coach Jono Gibbes.

"Toulouse who have Maxime Medard and Gael Fickou, players who can create things… La Rochelle seem to have one to 15 who can do all sorts of things.

"So, certainly, the threat is pretty real. I'd compare them to Scarlets. Not in the same way that they play, but Scarlets have built a style of play and you can see that they are comfortable with it and has come to fruition by winning the title last year.

"La Rochelle have built in the course of the last year, 18 months a style they are pretty comfortable with.

"They are different to Scarlets but they are happy and they have had some fantastic away results.

"They finished first of the Top 14 last year, and they were the top attack and second best defence after 26 games.

"So they've built on good framework of team work and they are pretty comfortable with that."

Unimpressive

Ulster's away form is nothing to write home about this season. Two trips to Italy have reaped one unimpressive win and one disappointing loss.

Les Kiss has gone for experience in the form of Andrew Trimble, who surprisingly replaces Jacob Stockdale.

The flying winger is on a bench that also features Ireland captain Rory Best, who will make his first appearance of the season.

John Cooney is also among the replacements after a disrupted training week, and the presence of Paul Marshall at scrum-half will make Ulster fans nervous.

A year ago, their campaign unravelled in Bordeaux and Marshall was at the heart of it. He needs a big game.

They all do; this is a key fixture in the northern province's season as they look to establish a foot-hold in their pool.

"You can see already it's going to be tight," Gibbes said.

"La Rochelle getting five (points) away, that's a pretty clear message. We have to fight for every point but we knew that coming in.

"It's a big game, it's a big challenge but one to get excited about. They're up for it.

"There's significance in their history - they're 100 years old. If you can reference 100 years of history into one game, you get an idea of the enormity of what we'll face.

"That's why you need your team-mates, you need to be as tight as you can as a team. That's all you've got down there.

"I know there'll be a few of our supporters down there, but I imagine they'll get the worst seats imaginable. I don't know how that happens.

"It's a tough old game but you have to step forward for those. This group is starting to build more understanding from each game.

"We're understanding a bit more from each game about ourselves, about what we can do, where our strengths lie, what we're good at. Four points was a good start (against Wasps) but it's going to be tough."

On a historic afternoon for the club who host their first European Champions Cup game, there is a lot of work to be done in silencing the home crowd, and in Cooney's absence Christian Lealiifano needs to nail his kicks from start to finish.

Ulster need a good start and some early scoreboard pressure, utilising Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble's aerial skills and Charles Piutau's running game to break the home side open.

But they will also need to be alert defensively, getting off the line and into the home side, who were afforded an abundance of space last week in London.

Staying in the fight is key; a losing bonus point would be a very good result that would set Ulster up nicely.

Verdict: La Rochelle

LA ROCHELLE - V Rattez; G Lacroix, G Doumayrou, P Aguillon, J Sinzelle; R Lamb, A Bales; D Priso, H Forbes, U Atonio; J Eaton, J Qovu Nailiko; B Veivuke, K Gourdon, V Vito. Reps: P Bourgarit, M Corbel, V Pelo, W Demotte, R Sazy, JV Goillot, P Jordaan, E Roudil.

ULSTER - C Piutau; A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, T Bowe; C Lealiifano, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst; K Treadwell, A O'Connor; I Henderson (capt), C Henry, S Reidy. Reps: R Best, K McCall, R Ah You, R Diack, M Rea, J Cooney, L Marshall, J Stockdale.

Ref - N Owens (Wales)

La Rochelle v Ulster, Live, Sky Sports, tomorrow, 3.15

Irish Independent

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