Monday 20 November 2017

Nothing but Ulster's best will do to beat La Rochelle, warns Kiss

Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

Ulster may have won six of seven games in all competitions so far this year but director of rugby Les Kiss believes it will take their best effort of the season to come away with the spoils against La Rochelle on Sunday.

The side from the Bay of Biscay have lost only once at home since the beginning of last season - against a Gloucester side with a heavy Ulster influence in last season's Challenge Cup - and the locals are sure to create a fever-pitch atmosphere for the Stade Marcel Deflandre's first Champions Cup contest.

Like Ulster, Patrice Collazo's men got their European campaign off to a triumphant start and their win on the road against Harlequins, and with a try-bonus for good measure, has put them in presumptive driving seat at this earliest of stages.

While France was once a hopeless hunting ground, Ulster have won three of six games there since getting the monkey off their backs with that first competitive victory over Castres in 2013.

However, Kiss is aware that the side who led the Top 14 last season only to lose a semi-final to Toulon will be a different proposition.

"La Rochelle have not lost at home much in the last year or so," said the Australian.

"They are a massively good team at home. Gloucester beat them in the Challenge Cup semi-final, but you cannot find many other games where they haven't got the money.

"There's pressure being away in a really tough environment. The way they support their team is massive and the way they play their game is based on power and the super speed they have on the edges."

As Kiss pointed out, La Rochelle are something of an atypical French side - not least because, unlike so many of their Top 14 cohorts, they are a team who travel well, but also in their style of play.

With the likes of two-time World Cup winner Victor Vito, and his fellow former All Black Jason Eaton, there is a heavy Kiwi influence on their style of play, even though Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Rene Ranger will not arrive until later in the season.

And, while they have plenty of typically French heft in the pack - prop Uini Atonio seems to be the poster boy for Les Bleus' size every Six Nations, but he is not alone in tipping the scales north of 20 stones at his club - it is a blend of both power and pace that sees them adopt the most expansive style in the Top 14.

With centre Geoffrey Doumayrou, the once-capped Montpellier native, and former Worcester man Ryan Lamb to the fore, they showed their usual sense of adventure in the win over Quins, putting boot to ball only 18 times, less than any other team in the competition during the first weekend.

Ulster expect to have Alan O'Connor back to bolster their pack after he missed out on the win over Wasps through concussion and are hopeful that flanker Chris Henry will recover from his larynx injury in time to feature.

It seems increasingly less likely, however, that skipper Rory Best, who has not played since the Lions tour, will be available because of a hamstring injury sustained in training last month.

Irish Independent

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