Rory Best produces masterclass as Ulster go top of Champions Cup pool
Ulster 20 La Rochelle 13
Ulster's roller coaster season continues – and with their final pool game to come, away against Wasps on Sunday, they top Pool 1 of the Champions Cup.
Defeat would have had all sorts of implications for them and their coach but despite some serious problems at the scrum, against a heavyweight unit, they battled through to win.
And for Christian Lealiifano, in his last game before returning to Ausralia, it was the perfect send –off. Iain Henserson too had a huge game, as did Jacob Stockdale in attack and Louis Ludik on defence.
Despite a slow first quarter where they were hanging on, the home side battled their way back into contention and took their chances.
By half time the home side had made a significant downpayment on success, leading 10-6, despite playing into the stiff breeze blowing into the war memorial end.
Given that Ulster were also under pressure at the scrum – where Rodney Ah You had his hands full trying to cope with the powerful Dany Priso – they probably would have settled with being a score down.
A very strong second quarter however raised the tempo and got the crowd involved. Having been 6-0 down to two penalties from Alexi Bales inside the first quarter, as La Rochelle relied on their forwards to carry time and again into Ulster territory, the last 12 minuets of the half belonged to Ulster.
They got a kick start with the yellow card for Paul Jordaan – himself a replacement for wing Gabriel Lacroix who was helped off after only 11 minutes. Jordaan completed a daft contact with Charles Piutau who was in the air, gathering a kick executed on an advantage play inside the Ulster 22. It was a huge moment.
Four minutes later Ulster had another penalty, which they knocked into touch five metres from the La Rochelle line. The lineout to Alan O’Connor worked perfectly, and with Nick Timoney set early Ulster got a drive going from which Rory Best rolled off to score.
John Cooney couldn't convert, but just to minutes later he was being handed another shot from much the same spot. This time it was consistent pressure from the home side's forwards and a great finish in the corner from Jacob Stockdale.
It was hard to fathom how referee Wayne Barnes ruled backwards a knock on from Louis Ludik in the build-up, but with a 10-6 lead the home crowd weren’t complaining.
The second half had hardly started when they surrendered that lead to an Alexi Bales try, from a great counter attack, but Ulster struck back inside two minutes through Nick Timoney, and with Cooney's conversion went 17-13 ahead,
The scrumhalf stretched that advantage on 49 minutes with a penalty. Somehow they avoided a yellow card after series of penalties conceded in their own 22, and eventually escaped for a huge win.
Ulster: C Piutau; C Gilroy (D Cave 28), L Ludik, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano (J McPhillips 73), J Cooney; C Black (K McCall 58), R Best (capt)(R Herring 73), R Ah You (R Kane 64), A O’Connor, I Henderson, M Rea (K Treadwell 58), N Timoney, S Reidy (C Henry 64)
La Rochelle: K Murimurivalu; G Lacroix (P Jordaan 11; yc 24-34; B Noble 68), G Doumayrou, P Aguillon, V Rattez; J Sinzelle, A Bales (T Kerr-Barlow 61); D Priso (V Pelo 64), P Bourgarit, U Atonio (M Boughnami 64), J Eaton (capt), M Tanguy (G Lamboley 66), B Veivuke, V Vito (A Amosa 64), K Gourdon
Referee: W Barnes (England)