Wednesday 26 June 2019

Changing times for Ludik and La Rochelle

Louis Ludik. Photo: Sportsfile
Louis Ludik. Photo: Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

With La Rochelle in Belfast on Saturday for a crunch Champions Cup tie (1pm kick-off), one Ulster player already knows what it's like to face the French side in a do-or-die clash, and in an odd twist of fate, it's likely he never would have made it to Kingspan Stadium without them.

Back in 2014, the Bay of Biscay outfit - now considered one of the most exciting in Europe - were just another ambitious club seeking promotion from the Pro D2. All that was standing in their way was Louis Ludik's Agen and a play-off final played in Bordeaux.

The South African scored a try that day, but his side were beaten 31-22, the defeat opening up a contract clause that allowed him to join his good friend and fellow former Shark Ruan Pienaar in Belfast.

Despite the fact that both the director of rugby David Humphreys, and head coach Mark Anscombe he signed for were out the door before he'd arrived, Ludik has not looked back. The same can be said for La Rochelle.

A steady rise, and one built on a sustainable model, has brought a huge transformation on the Atlantic coast, where the likes of former All Blacks Victor Vito, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Jason Eaton and Rene Ranger all now ply their trade.

Key figures remain from that promotion season though - Levani Botia, Uini Atonio and Kevin Gourdon chief among them - and Ludik believes you could see the foundations for their ascent being set that May afternoon some three-and-a-half years ago.

"They had a very good side over there then (too)," he recalled. "We actually beat them earlier in the year at home, but they just came out and threw the ball around. Everyone just came out and got over the line easily. They had quick backs and they had big forwards back then too.

"Their backs were quick, it was very difficult to stop them."

With the once-capped French prop Patrice Collazo at the helm since 2011 - although former Toulouse and French winger Xavier Garbajosa would take control of the backs only ahead of the return to the Top 14 - not much has changed stylistically since then.

"They (still) counter a lot, they like to keep the ball in hand and they come from all positions," added Ludik. "Once they start to get going and get their bodies in line, it's almost impossible to stop them, so we just have to get up to the line and smash them in their tracks."

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