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Brilliant Best leads ferocious Ulster to victory over La Rochelle

Pool 1 is now topped by Ulster after a three-try win over the powerhouse French outift.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ulster 20

La Rochelle 13

Sean Farrell reports from Kingspan Stadium

WE DARE SAY that Rory Best might consider the year-long wait for a win in Ulster colours worth it.

It was something of a statistical freak, combined with IRFU player management and Best’s own Lions ambition that kept him away from each of Ulster’s victories since December 2016. But the Ireland and Ulster skipper played a key role in banishing that record with a ferocious performance against the powerhouse of La Rochelle.

The northern province’s European campaign teetered on a knife-edge entering this contest. Out of form and apparently low on confidence and ideas in the Pro14, they scored tries from Best, Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney to overtake the French side at the top of Champions Cup Pool 1.

This was not the performance of a team who don’t believe in their coaching ticket, it wasn’t the performance of a team who are on the wane. It was a triumphant fulfilling of the potential within their ranks.

Victor Vito is tackled by John Cooney Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The opening exchanges provided nothing but ominous signs from the team who swept five tries past Ulster in October. Levani Botia was breaking tackles, Alexi Bales had an endless array of angles and runners to choose from and for 20 long minutes Ulster could barely escape their half.

The best setup the first quarter had to offer the hosts was a penalty inside Rochelais territory. With a sharp wind deterring kickers, Christian Lealiifano — on his last outing at Kingspan Stadium –  was directed to touch, but his kick fell horribly short. A scrum was a welcome return for Ulster. Unfortunately, that went awry. And soon so too did the line-out 40 metres from their own posts. A litany of errors, missteps and mistimings helping to set up Bales’ second penalty of the day.

A six-point deficit began to look remarkably steep. When the hosts put multiple phases of possession together midway through the first half, they found themselves running down black and yellow alleys and were continually dumped on the back foot by a solid defence led by Geoffrey Dumayrou, Kevin Gourdon and Botia.

Charles Piutau taken out by Paul Jordaan Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The dominance lasted only as long as the visitors had 15 men on the field though. A 22nd-minute yellow card for Paul Jordaan (an early replacement for injured wing Gabriel LaCroix) felt like a lifeline to the hosts as they were on the verge of suffocation.

Moments later, after a Botia carry, Best emerged heroically from the ruck to signal a swift turnover and John Cooney pounded the ball behind the French side to crank up the pressure.

They visitors made a good fist of escaping their 22, but when a penalty came 40 metres out, Best again pointed to the corner. This time there would be no mistakes. Best threw to the front and the maul was spinning its wheels as the captain joined the tail and he was celebrating a try within seconds.

When Jordaan returned from the bin, Ulster’s line-out was back in the corner. Left side this time, and they resisted a return to the maul in favour of a probe with the back-line.

The French resistance was no longer sending Ulster carriers backwards. Rodney Ah You made a huge gainline to help crank the pressure up and the onslaught bore fruit when a pass bounced off the turf, Darren Cave dived to help it on and Stockdale showed that remarkable finishing ability.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates his try Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The ‘moments’ Rory Best lamented losing in the RDS were now going Ulster’s way, and it was telling that all 15 men arrived in around a ruck to pat the pack on its collective back for choking up La Rochelle to force a 39th minute scrum to secure 10 – 6 half-time lead.

The second half began with an almighty fright as Vito picked up from a ruck to find a soft gap and timed his reverse pass to send Bales over the line and the visitors in the lead.

That man Cave showed his redoubtable nous moments later, though. The centre was only on the field after Craig Gilroy failed a HIA, but his presence in the centre was an enormous boost. Never more so than his 44th minute toe on a loose ball; the pill shot up into the air in front of him in the 22, but Cave was calm and controlled enough to take and give possession to invite Timoney on a galloping run towards the line.

Having looked destined for a hiding in the early stages, Ulster were in ferocious mood. Piutau cut into La Rochelle territory, Stockdale pushed out big fends and Matty Rea carried enough for two men before the penalty came allowing Cooney extend the lead to 20 – 13.

Christian Lealiifano waves goodbye to the Ulster fans on his last game Lealiifano marked his last appearance at Kingspan Stadium with a win. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The momentum was undercut by the need to delve in amongst the replacements. La Rochelle looked like a pack with a sniff of blood in their nostrils when Kyle McCall was pinged on his first engagement, but credit to the hosts, they shored up every hole and pressured and thwarted their guests at every exhausting turn.

After taking a big defeat to Leinster last week, a big response was called for. Ulster’s answer was emphatic, and so was every last tackle and chase to see this one out.

Remarkably, after a season of stutters and false starts, Ulster lead their pool by a point and boast a five-point advantage over next weekend’s hosts, Wasps.



Tries: R Best, J Stockdale, N Timoney

Conversions: J Cooney (1/3)

Penalties: J Cooney (1/1)

La Rochelle

Tries: A Bales

Conversions: A Bales (1/1)

Penalties: A Bales (2/2)

Ulster: Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy (Darren Cave ’26), Louis Ludik, Stu McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano (Johnny McPhillips ’72), John Cooney: Callum Black (Kyle McCall ’57), Rory Best (Rob Herring ’72), Rodney Ah You (Ross Kane ’63), Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson, Matty Rea (Kieran Treadwell ’57), Sean Reidy (Chris Henry ’63), Nick Timoney.

La Rochelle: Kini Murimurivalu, Gabriel Lacroix (Paul Jordaan ’11 (Benjamin Nobles ’64)), Geoffrey Doumayrou, Pierre Aguillon, Vincent Rattez, Jérémy Sinzelle, Alexi Bales (T Kerr-Barlow ’60): Dany Priso (Vincent Pelo ’63), Pierre Bourgarit (Jean-Charles Orioli ’63), Uini Atonio (Mohamed Boughanni ’63), Jason Eaton, Mathieu Tanguy (Gregory Lamboley ’64), Levani Botia Veivuke, Kevin Gourdon, Victor Vito (Afa Amosa ’63)

As it happened: Ulster vs La Rochelle, Champions Cup

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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