Ulster 3 La Rochelle 7
In the cold light of day, it was, of course, another defeat – their sixth from seven times of asking – which once more was visited upon Ulster in the closing exchanges of a contest.
You would wonder at what this might be doing psychologically to the players and yet for all that this loss – also making it three reverses from three in Europe though Ulster still have a shot at potential qualification should they overcome Sale Sharks on Saturday – came with an entirely different feel stemming from a somewhat unanticipated narrative.
In conditions of truly atrocious weather, trumping the weekend before when La Rochelle triumphed over Toulouse at Stade Marcel Deflandre and even making Ravenhill on its grimmest nights look rather benign, Ulster had the European champions on the ropes and were seconds away from claiming the result.
Instead, in the same cruel way that the northern province lost to Munster on New Year’s Day, Ulster were unable to hold out at the denouement, the lumbering figure of Joel Sclavi, with some assistance from his latchers, burrowing over while the clock was ticking in the red.
Up to that point, Nathan Doak’s 63rd-minute penalty was all that separated the teams with both having grimly slugged it out in a contest stalemated by the driving wind and torrential rain.
For all that they had La Rochelle having to dig far deeper than Ronan O’Gara’s side would have ever anticipated, what will stick in Ulster’s craw is the knowledge they should have been further ahead after a series of penalties near the French line in the opening half led to no return from their driving maul and also occurred when their hosts were reduced to 14 through flanker Paul Boudehent’s binning.
Nick Timoney lost the ball when surging over and then the visitors had Rob Lyttle’s neat touchdown from a rare back move scrubbed out due to Jacob Stockdale’s assist having slipped forward out his hands.
In such a game, Ulster had to take all chances that might fall their way though, afterwards, Dan McFarland felt that Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli, who also had a difficult evening, ought to have awarded a penalty try to the visitors from besieging their line.
McFarland, understandably, praised his team’s overall performance in such adverse circumstances and was already looking ahead to this weekend and Ulster’s first “home” game in Europe – they played La Rochelle behind closed doors at the Aviva last month in round two – when Sale rack up at the Kingspan.
“I think the guys did a really good job,” said McFarland, “and they were part of a huge effort.
“It’s difficult to namecheck guys,” he added, though mention was made of Doak’s game management, and the efforts put in by Jeff Toomaga-Allen, and Academy debutant Harry Sheridan who came off the bench.
“The conditions were so difficult,” McFarland continued and in terms of the losing run he stated: “There’s no flapping.
“We’ll keep working and as this shows, we nearly beat the European champions away from home.”
Victory over Sale, who lost at home to Toulouse, now offers the northern province a potential way forward in the competition never mind bringing a much-desired halt to their difficult run.
“We haven’t had a home game in the Champions Cup yet,” McFarland said ruefully.
“It’s a match that we want to show our true colours and at least demonstrate to them what we’re about because we didn’t do it last time,” he added referencing being on the wrong end of the 39-0 scoreline in round one.
Last Saturday’s opening half saw Antoine Hastoy and Doak understandably both miss penalty shots though the La Rochelle’s outhalf’s 18th-minute effort cannoned back off an upright.
The hosts survived Paul Boudehent’s yellow card without conceding and as the game dragged on, opposing skippers Iain Henderson – who departed with an apparent HIA – and Gregory Alldritt were the ones who emerged with some big plays.
When Doak managed to put the first points on the board it looked as if Ulster had done enough. But when Warwick was penalised for being off his feet, La Rochelle put the ball in the corner and with their last shot worked Sclavi over.
Hastoy’s conversion ended it, allowing the home side to celebrate their late escape and qualification for the last 16. Ulster’s bonus point keeps them in with a fighting chance of progressing.
LA ROCHELLE: B Dulin; T Thomas, UJ Seuteni, J Favre, Pierre Boudehent; A Hastoy, T Berjon; T Paiva, S Legrange, G-H Colombe; U Dillane, R Picquette; R Bourdeau, Paul Boudehent, G Alldritt (capt).
Replacements: J Sclavi for Paiva (9 mins), T Kerr Barlow for Bergon, R Rhule for Thomas (both h-t), R Sazy for Dillane (61), Q-L Brettes for Legrange (65), A Kuntella for Colombe, T Lavault for Picquette (both 74). Not used: P Popelin.
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Lyttle, S Moore, L Marshall, J Stockdale; I Madigan, N Doak; R Sutherland, R Herring, J Toomaga-Allen; A O’Connor, K Treadwell; I Henderson (capt), N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: B Moxham for Marshall (26 mins), H Sheridan for Treadwell (58), E O’Sullivan for Sutherland, D McCann for Henderson (both 61), J Andrew for Herring (65), A Warwick for Toomaga-Allen (70). Not used: M McDonald not used, E McIlroy not used.
Referee: N Amashukeli (Georgia).