Ulster 29 La Rochelle 36
La Rochelle came out swinging in the first half and Ulster looked like they were badly caught sluggers fighting in the wrong weight division. Then, feisty, aggressive and likely with a fair degree of self-respect instilled by coach Dan McFarland they came out the other side of half-time renewed.
Perhaps, redirecting the anger over their match not being played in Belfast, Ulster changed momentum.
Victory? No. Something to like? Why not after converting a 29-0 first 40-minute routing into a seven-point defeat and a four-try bonus point with John Cooney then nailing the final kick to end within seven points for a losing bonus point. Ulster also confined La Rochelle to three tries.
It was a match where almost as much was happening off the field as on it. The late switch from Belfast to Dublin depriving Ulster of their home advantage and the La Rochelle “delegation” that numbered around 100 people including children, allowed into the ‘behind closed doors’ match in Aviva Stadium
“First time I’ve seen delegates eight years old,” quipped Ulster coach Dan McFarland.
Overall, the heady mix of pitch swapping and defeat made McFarland an angry man despite his side’s partial renaissance. What he might have been thinking, revenue loss of up to £700,000 aside, was how differently the Champions Cup story might have ended for them with a boozy, Christmas crowd at Ulster’s back up in Ravenhill Road.
“I’m angry. I’m angry about it. I’ve got to speak up about it,” said McFarland. “I have the opportunity to echo what [CEO] Jonny Petrie said earlier. He’s probably in an even more awkward position because of the financial costs of it. I’m a stakeholder in this competition because I’ve been involved in it for so long. I love it.
“My personal opinion is that we were there [Belfast] this morning [Saturday] at 10 o’clock, 9.30, and that pitch was playable. I was there the night before and the people there predicted that it was going to be playable. The work that the people did, the staff and volunteers, to get that pitch ready was phenomenal under the current circumstances. It was ready.
“We knew it was going to be ready because the weather was predicted to change overnight. But that decision was taken away from us. The bottom line is the decision was wrong. It could have been played at Ravenhill.”
Other voices said the pitch remained frozen on Friday afternoon prompting the late change at around 8.0pm. Another question is why the RDS was not commissioned to host the match. It is Ulster’s nominated alternative ground.
It is also believed that it was suggested the match be put off until Sunday and played in Kingspan Stadium. However, that didn’t suit broadcaster BT Sport, while French League games were fixed for the following Friday and the governing French body, the LNR, were not happy with the four-day turnaround.
In an interesting challenge to the organisers, the European Professional Rugby Cup (EPRC), McFarland took on the bald commerciality of the competition and questioned why that should trump all other considerations.
“I played Challenge Cup with Connacht, I’ve coached in the Champions Cup with Glasgow and with Ulster and with Connacht,” said the Ulster coach.
“There is more to European rugby than a game played between four lines. There’s more than that. It’s an occasion. Whether you’re in Thomond playing Toulouse, whether you’re in [Ravenhill] playing against Racing, whether you’re in Welford Road watching Dan Cole win his 300th cap, it’s an occasion. It has spirit, it has feeling. If you want to reduce it to the word product … the product is more than just the game.
“I would argue very strenuously that from now on, every single European game that’s played behind closed doors between two teams inside four lines, pretty soon the product would disappear quickly.”
That said, Ulster are zero wins but two points from two matches, with La Rochelle jumping up the table but frustrated that they missed the bonus try point in Dublin after Antoine Hastoy put in a phenomenal first half.
The La Rochelle outhalf kicked five penalties, two conversions and scored a try for 24 points of the 29 points scored before half-time, fullback Brice Dulin also adding a try.
Between Sale’s 39-0 win last week and the first 40 minutes at the Aviva, Ulster conceded 68 unanswered points. Then, the physical challenge went up a notch and La Rochelle oddly appeared to want to nurse their way to victory.
Given their first-half dominance, for Ulster to turn it around was a preposterous thought. But Iain Henderson, having shipped a first-half yellow card, claimed the first try with John Cooney then kicking into gear as Ulster matched the French forwards.
Cooney’s try took it to 12-36 before Duane Vermeulen and Tom Stewart took the scoreboard to 24-36. Cooney’s conversion made it 26-36 before the scrumhalf calmly kicked the final penalty of the day on the whistle for 29-36.
“Momentum is a huge thing,” said La Rochelle’s Donnacha Ryan. “You know I think Ulster, they are a very proud team and I think last week was very, very difficult for them.
“I’m sure they had a tough week of it. But yeah, the first half certainly we were very, very, good. We gave away four penalties in the first half but in the second half we gave away 12. So that’s something for us to work on during the week.
“It was disappointing for them. But luckily our supporters were able to come in today which was great, cos they made a huge effort to come over, so that was great.”
Supporters? It sounds like we haven’t heard the last of this.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 5 mins: A Hastoy pen 0-3; 14: Hastoy pen 0-6; 18: Hastoy pen 0-9; 24: Hastoy pen 0-12; 28: B Dulin try, Hastoy con 0-19; 39: Hastoy pen 0-22; 39: Hastoy try, con 0-29. Half-time. 41: I Henderson try, Cooney con 7-29; 52: P Bougarit try, Hastoy con 7-36; 60: J Cooney try, con 14-36; 62: D Vermeulen try 19-36; 75: T Stewart try, Cooney con 26-36; 80: Cooney pen 29-36.
ULSTER: M Lowry; E McIlroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney; R Sutherland, T Stewart, M Moore; A O’Connor, S Carter; I Henderson (capt), D Vermeulen, N Timoney.
Replacements: N Doak for Burns (22 mins, HIA), R Herring for Stewart (52-66), K Treadwell for Carter (52), E O’Sullivan for Sutherland (61), G Milasinovich for Moore (63), D McCann for Timoney (67), S Moore for Marshall (74).
Yellow card: Henderson (25 mins).
LA ROCHELLE: B Dulin; D Leyds, UJ Seuteni, J Danty, Pierre Boudehent; A Hastoy, T Kerr-Barlow; R Wardi, P Bougarit, U Atonio; R Sazy, W Skelton; R Bourdeau, G Alldritt (capt), Y Tanga.
Replacements: T Berjon for Kerr-Barlow (41), Paul Boudehent for Y Tanga (48), T Paiva for Wardi (51-69), J Sclavi for Atonio (51), R Rhule for Pierre Boudehent (61), Q Lespiaucq Brettes for Bougarit, U Dillane for Skelton (both 62). Not used: L Botia.
Yellow card: J Danty (61 mins).
Referee: L Pearce (England).