Sunday 23 September 2018

Ulster take control of their destiny

Ulster 20 La Rochelle 13

Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale goes over for his side’s second try during yesterday’s Champions Cup at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale goes over for his side’s second try during yesterday’s Champions Cup at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Brendan Faning

Instead of a wet Friday night at Kingspan Stadium, it was a miserable Saturday lunchtime as Ulster went to work on the European front - a dual challenge this, partly about staying alive in the Champions Cup, and partly about keeping the show that it is Ulster Rugby on the road.

The good news for all concerned is that they go to Coventry on Sunday in pole position in Pool 1, which in theory means they are in control of their own destiny.

Given Ulster's season to date, that's not something they have been very good at. But for now they are in one piece, and in staying that way they didn't leave a lot out on the field.

The game was still very much a live issue right up until Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle, a blast that must have been greeted with special warmth by Christian Lealiifano, who can head back to Canberra and the Brumbies knowing that he did his bit.

La Rochelle's Alexis Balès goes over to score his side's first try despite the tackle of Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
La Rochelle's Alexis Balès goes over to score his side's first try despite the tackle of Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

He played as much on the gain line as he could here - and against this bruising La Rochelle side that wasn't easy. The French will still be confident of topping the pool: a bonus point win at home against Quins, depending on what happens in Coventry between Wasps and Ulster, may see them finish top. And if Ulster are to qualify for the quarters it could well be via one of the three best runners-up spots, but Quins' dramatic win over Wasps yesterday does them a big favour. So all to play for going to the last?

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

What he needs to happen most of all is to get a few players back fit. Like Wiehahn Herbst, for starters. Ulster's scrum is like a tourist asking to be mugged, and while one man doesn't change that singlehandedly it would help to make a change at tighthead

It was an absorbing contest, one Ulster were blessed to win, for they escaped a period of pressure in their own corner in the second half where they conceded five penalties in a row - and yet kept 15 men on the field. La Rochelle captain Jason Eaton afterwards referred to the letter from on high warning players about asking referees to card opponents, so he kept his mouth shut. But he had been hoping for something positive from the momentum.

The main source of Ulster's discomfort was the scrum, and Rodney Ah You was feeling the most pain. Up against Dany Priso, a serious operator - La Rochelle are not short in that department - it was an exercise literally in keeping his feet on the ground. And staying on the pitch.

Minutes earlier, Louis Ludik had produced a remarkable piece of defensive work with three morale-boosting tackles in a row, to get the crowd on their feet. So to escape the pressure in their own corner without losing a man or giving up points was a huge tonic for them.

Ulster's John Cooney kicks a penalty. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ulster's John Cooney kicks a penalty. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

The sight of fresh troops arriving for La Rochelle as soon as that siege had been lifted was ominous, but by then Ulster were not for turning, and did very well to see out the rest of the last quarter mostly in the right parts of the field.

Rory Best won the man-of-the-match award, yet there was a queue of locals who answered the call. Iain Henderson was Ulster's top carrier up front, on 14, and his appetite for work when they were under real pressure was impressive.

Charles Piutau had a big game too, as did Darren Cave coming off the bench for Craig Gilroy whose cheekbone may be broken after a clash of heads.

Ulster set the groundwork for the win with two tries in the second quarter, from Best and Jacob Stockdale - courtesy of a knock-on by Ludik - to overhaul a six-point deficit, going in 10-6 at the break having played into the wind. Paul Jordaan was in the bin at the time so it was the height of efficiency.

Alexi Bales hit them early in the second half after a lovely counter-attack, but Nick Timoney responded inside two minutes and then John Cooney added a penalty for 20-13 with half an hour left.

They had to ride their luck a few times thereafter but Ulster were still standing at the finish. It makes for a great weekend to come.

Scorers - Ulster: Best, Stockdale, Timoney try each; Cooney pen, con. La Rochelle: Bales try, 2 pens, con.

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.

Referee: W Barnes (England)

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