Monday 17 December 2018

Ulster stay alive but Best insists they have to improve

Ulster 20 La Rochelle13

Jacob Stockdale prepares to touch down for an Ulster try during their victory over La Rochelle. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale prepares to touch down for an Ulster try during their victory over La Rochelle. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

This was a game of two halves. The first, in Kingspan Stadium, saw Ulster complete their home programme in Pool 1 with another win, which ticks more than one box in that part of the world.

The second came soon after in the Stoop where Harlequins produced a stunning final quarter to leave Wasps as no more than observers going into this weekend's final round of games.

You'd imagine the cheers in Belfast could he heard in leafy Twickenham such was the good news for Les Kiss's crew.

They head to Coventry on Sunday hoping to nail down a place in the Champions Cup quarter-final, massively relieved that their opponents have practically nothing to play for.

So, a week in which they need to shore up their scrum - it's a bit much to expect Wasps to stop competing there, when their chances of qualification are slim in the extreme - and get some more consistency into their game.

To that end, the prospect of Wiehahn Herbst being fit is an attractive one, for Rodney Ah You, who did well enough around the field against La Rochelle, is not made for scrummaging.

Nick Timoney of Ulster goes over to score his side's third try. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Nick Timoney of Ulster goes over to score his side's third try. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile

It was a wonder that Ulster survived this phase with eight men on the field. The game's crucial period, in the third quarter, saw them concede five penalties in a row - albeit not all of them at the scrum.

They were 20-13 ahead at the time, and once they got through that rough patch without giving up points or bodies, some of the fight went out of a La Rochelle side who are still on course for qualification.

Coming out the right side of this bruising encounter involved Ulster improving radically in their defence - conceding just one try to this calibre of opposition is good going - and being efficient in converting their chances.

They managed both. Which left man of the match Rory Best in the happy situation of actually winning a game in the Ulster shirt - something he hadn't done since December 2016.

"I think we can talk about that now without a grimace," he said. "I think I was lying when I said it doesn't affect you and you don't think about it because ultimately you do. It means so much to all of us to win and to win in an Ulster shirt.

Hurts

Alexis Balès of La Rochelle is tackled by Louis Ludik and Jacob Stockdale of Ulster. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Alexis Balès of La Rochelle is tackled by Louis Ludik and Jacob Stockdale of Ulster. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

"That is what we prepare for. We prepare to win matches and when it doesn't happen it hurts us all and I think it's something we talked about, reactions over that Christmas period and we hadn't delivered on it.

"But if you look back at this week and the way everyone prepared, weighed in and the hard work that went in, it was nice that it came out on the pitch for a bit of a change."

The confidence they will take from this win is invaluable for they were struggling into the wind in the first half against the powerful carrying game of the French Top 14 leaders.

Six points down after 16 minutes, they took full advantage of the yellow card for Paul Jordaan to turn the game around. Tries from Best - off a lineout maul - and Jacob Stockdale, with another fine finish, gave them a 1-6 lead at the break.

La Rochelle hit them early in the second half with a lovely counter-attack try for Alexi Bales, but the explosive Nick Timoney responded within two minutes. And a John Cooney penalty stretched them out to a seven points lead.

It was far from comfortable but their appetite for hard work - Iain Henderson was outstanding with and without the ball, and Louis Ludik had a huge defensive game - and we wait to see if they can pick up against Wasps where they left off against La Rochelle. It's doubtful if Craig Gilroy, who went off with a cheekbone injury.

"I think we have to connect the dots to what we did during the training week equals what you do at the weekend and how you prepare," Best said.

"If you make mistakes in training continually they're going to manifest themselves in games. That's the big challenge for us. We'll see where we are in eight days' time.

"It was a big effort and Louis Ludik is right - these big games you've got to enjoy the wins. This is what it's about. This is why you put in so much effort. Take a breath now, enjoy the moment, enjoy winning with each other and on Monday morning roll the sleeves up again and see what we can do to improve.

"For me to win away from home against some of the top sides you're going to have to improve again."

If so they'll be doing it without Christain Lealiifano who heads back to the Brumbies having made a fine contribution to the cause.

Johnny McPhillips, who came on for him late in the day and did well, will expect to be understudying Stephen Donald but you wonder if the local lad might overtake the import. McPhillips has heaps of potential.

Les Kiss, for whom this result eases some pressure, can work that one out. And enjoy the fact that his team are still in with a shout of making the knockouts.

"It's good to know that when you put an effort in like that you get a return," he said.

"And the return is an opportunity next week. It's not the fact that we're on top of the pool, it's that we are alive next week in a big way. There's a lot that can still happen."

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 (JC Oriolo 64), U Atonio (M Boughnami 64), J Eaton (capt), M Tanguy (G Lamboley 66), B Veivuke, V Vito (A Amosa 64), K Gourdon

Ref - W Barnes (England)

Irish Independent

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