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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 19 July, 2018
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Lavishly-talented La Rochelle the tallest of orders for Ulster

Ulster must plough every last drop of effort and will to take over top spot in their Champions Cup pool.

TODAY, QUITE SIMPLY, is season-defining for Ulster.

Stuart McCloskey Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The campaign to date has been punctuated by dispiriting lows that have left the feeling of consistency feel like a pipe dream.

Mercifully, their worst days have come with the relatively humdrum backdrop of the Pro14 — away to Zebre and the Dragons, at home to Benetton and then two solid pastings from their neighbouring provinces over Christmas.

Yet, on the big stage in Europe, Ulster have dug deep, grimly refusing to relinquish hope of progressing through to the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup.

Today (kick-off 1pm, Sky Sports), the bum notes, near-misses and trouncings can be washed away, sluiced down into every sportsman’s favourite pile of news clippings; ‘written-off too early’.

Today, a win would put Les Kiss’ men on top of their pool and firmly in control of their own destiny.

pool 1

The trouble is the opposition.

This is the same La Rochelle outfit (albeit with three changes to the XV) who in October scorched five tries past Ulster in Stade Marcel de Flandre. They have been the form side in France for the past year, leading the way into last season’s Barrages before a Pierre Aguillon red card in the semi-final preceded three Leigh Halfpenny penalties in a 15 – 18 loss to Toulon.

Over the course of this winter, from a distance there has been a hushed hope that the wheels are wobbling after their bullet-train beginning to the campaign. Much of that had to do with the approach of the team which lost to Wasps last month – a result followed up by defeat away to Bordeaux and a five-try 38 – 38 draw in Oyonnax.

However, there was also a whopping 47 – 6 win at home to Agen and Les Maritimes are only a point off the summit of the Top14. So it’s by no means an all-out crisis, just enough room for hope.

The hope/dread balance around how today’s lunchtime encounter may unfold was embodied pretty well by the previous meeting between the teams on France’s west coast in October.

With Victor Vito painting in broad brush strokes, the hosts were a vision of flair and fire as they ran in four tries in the second half of a terrific 41 – 17 win. Up until the 50th minute though, Ulster had kept themselves in contention and trailed by only three points at the break before unravelling.

To succeed today, they will need to keep the defensive line extra tight. A repeat of last weekend’s visit to Dublin, or the early-season journey to France, would be another hammer blow to an already trying season.

Jeremy Sinzelle on his way to scoring a try Sinzelle running in a try against Ulster in October. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Patrice Collazo has been able to call upon the majority of his big guns with a view to booking top spot with a week to spare. Perhaps most frightening, is the return of Vito to the back row, an area where Ulster look light even with fine performances from Matty Rea and Nick Timoney in recent memory.

Iain Henderson is the second row’s gain, however. He packs down behind Rory Best and Rodney Ah You, with Alan O’Connor and Callum Black on the loosehead side of their respective rows.

As ever, it is behind the pack where Ulster should see the most cause for optimism. Their outright leader for player-of-the-season consideration, John Cooney, is back in situ as Christian Lealiifano bids farewell to the Kingspan Stadium before his move back to the Brumbies this month.

La Rochelle meanwhile have third-choice 10, and regular wing, Jeremy Sinzelle at out-half with neither Ryan Lamb or Brock James making the trip to Belfast.

La Rochelle have more than enough firepower and talent to compensate, but in a make-or-break battle on turf where Ulster detest losing, a 10 can go a long way.

This stadium has produced many special European nights under lights, it will take one hell of a performance in the cold harsh January daylight to topple the lavishly-talented Rochelais.

Ulster

15. Charles Piutau
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Louis Ludik
12. Stu McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Christian Lealiifano
9. John Cooney

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best (Capt)
3. Rodney Ah You
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Iain Henderson
6. Matty Rea
7. Sean Reidy
8. Nick Timoney

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Kyle McCall
18. Ross Kane
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Chris Henry
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Johnny McPhillips
23. Darren Cave

La Rochelle

15. Kini Murimurivalu
14. Gabriel Lacroix
13. Geoffrey Doumayrou
12. Pierre Aguillon
11. Vincent Rattez
10. Jérémy Sinzelle
9. Alexi Bales

1. Dany Priso
2. Pierre Bourgarit
3. Uini Atonio
4. Jason Eaton
5. Mathieu Tanguy
6. Botia Veivuke
7. Kevin Gourdon
8. Victor Vito

Replacements

16. Jean-Charles Orioli
17. Vincent Pelo
18. Mohamed Boughanmi
19. Gregory Lamboley
20. Afa Amosa
21. Tawera Kerr Barlow
22. Benjamin Nobles
23. Paul Jordaan

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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