James Crombie/INPHO Ulster have won once in their last seven games.
# Tough Times
Ulster show signs of life in La Rochelle dogfight as knock-out clash with Sale looms
Nick Timoney believes the province are ‘on the verge of getting back into our groove.’

EVERY ULSTER FAN we came across en route to La Rochelle and in the lovely coastal town over the weekend expressed pretty much the same sentiment: we’re hoping for something special here but not confident of it.

There was a bit of fear about what Ronan O’Gara’s team might do if they hit top gear, even without the likes of Will Skelton and Uini Atonio. Imagine the jolt of nerves for Ulster supporters on matchday when both of those giants were then listed on the team sheet, only for La Rochelle to hastily clarify that it had been an admin error.

Still, Ulster fans have suddenly had to get used to their team losing. Saturday night’s agonising 7-3 defeat after a La Rochelle try in the last play of the game makes it just one win in their last seven, a miserable record for a team that had been as solid as Ulster. Most of the travelling support were truly stumped as to what has gone wrong so quickly.

And yet, Saturday night pleasantly surprised most of them as Ulster came within seconds of what would have been a famous win at the imposing, impressive Stade Marcel-Deflandre.

Post-match, head coach Dan McFarland was obviously dejected about the circumstances of defeat but also proud of his players and evidently quite encouraged by much of their performance.

In truth, the driving rain and swirling wind suited Ulster. It meant La Rochelle simply couldn’t get their attack going. Ulster right now are fighting for their lives, so a scrap in the downpour ended up working in their favour.

That’s not to diminish the doggedness of their effort in an error-strewn game that featured zero linebreaks and had a ball-in-play time of just under 30 minutes – a full 10 minutes less than Munster’s game against Northampton, for example.

joel-sclavi-scores-the-winning-try James Crombie / INPHO Ulster's defeat was agonising. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Ulster tackled ferociously with a 95% success rate, while their set-piece had some massive moments and really should have yielded a penalty try before half time, as McFarland argued afterwards. They kicked well at times, had four breakdown steals, forced mistakes from La Rochelle, and took the lead through Nathan Doak’s 63rd-minute penalty. When they survived a scrum onslaught on their own five-metre line with nine minutes left, it felt like it was going to be their night.

But it wasn’t to be as La Rochelle showed their champion composure to find a way through sub prop Joel Sclavi’s try and Ulster simply had another defeat to show for all of their work-rate and will-power.

The margins were so fine. It was a penalty against replacement prop Andrew Warwick – covering the tighthead side due to injuries – at the breakdown that allowed La Rochelle access into Ulster’s 22 for their winning try. A self-inflicted wound much like the offside penalty against John Cooney a week before over in Benetton to concede the winning kick.

Ulster believe they are very close to ending this miserable run of results.

“I sort of feel it’s been a bit of a theme the last few weeks,” said back row Nick Timoney on Saturday.

“There’s been lots of close ones and we’re not really getting on the right side of them. There’s loads of bits you can do each week to improve on the results but I guess that has to be the overriding thought – that we came and gave a pretty good account of ourselves. The weather and conditions were pretty appalling but in terms of our attitude and energy, our physicality and that sort of thing, was pretty good.”

This performance was perhaps more encouraging but there are still big worries for Ulster fans, even if McFarland continues to insist that all is calm behind the scenes.

“There’s no flapping,” said McFarland, “that’s the big thing. We’re focused on what we’ve got to do. We understand that there are areas of our game where we haven’t been playing particularly well over the past six weeks but we also understand the context, the opposition we’ve been playing.

a-view-of-the-rain-as-la-rochelles-antoine-hastoy-kicks James Crombie / INPHO There was torrential rain in La Rochelle. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“We’ve just got to focus on the things that we do well and make sure that we do them well. The losing is a by-product.”

McFarland refused to say Saturday’s near-miss will be a turning point for Ulster. He pointed out that the turning point would be consistent performances. 

So that places a monumental onus on Ulster delivering this weekend back in Belfast, where they can enjoy home comforts for the first time in Europe this season. The debacle that saw them play La Rochelle behind closed doors in Dublin remains a frustration, but McFarland and co. need rousing support on Saturday against Sale in what is akin to a knock-out game.

The English side are two match points ahead of them in Pool B but Ulster could still, rather incredibly, rescue this campaign if they win. A place in the round-of-16 is still possible, although Ulster also need the Stormers to do them a favour by beating Clermont well in South Africa. 

In fairness, the Ulster fans have already been incredibly supportive and travelled to La Rochelle in strong numbers. Now they will stand up for the Ulster men back at Kingspan Stadium.

“It’s huge,” said Timoney. “They were great today, the ones that did come. Anyone we’ve seen about the place, they’ve been behind us. It would be great to get in front of them next week and hopefully have a big important knock-out game.

“They’ve been sticking with us, so we owe them something good to come and watch. It feels like we’re on the verge of getting back into our groove.”

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