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Gerry Thornley: Ulster feel full force of La Rochelle in first Irish defeat

Glasgow Warriors pointless and marooned after Leinster’s 34-18 win at Scotstoun

Ulster’s John Cooney is tackled by Botia Veivuke of La Rochelle during their European Champions Cup round two encounter at Stade Marcel-Deflandre, La Rochelle, France. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

It couldn’t last forever and when the first defeat for an Irish province in the opening two rounds of European rugby arrived on Sunday it was not particularly surprising. La Rochelle’s 41-17 defeat of Ulster at a throbbing Stade Marcel-Deflandre saw the tournament newcomers emulate back-to-back champions Saracens and Leinster in recording a second bonus point win to assume leadership of Pool One.

Ulster were well beaten by La Rochelle’s potent mix of hard carrying, offloading game and pace out wide, but they didn’t help themselves. Andrew Trimble, on his record-breaking 222nd appearance for the province, threw the high, loose pass which eluded Darren Cave and led to the opening try by Jérémy Sinzelle inside three minutes.

Ulster did well to restrict La Rochelle to a 13-10 lead, Christian Leali’ifano working a lovely wraparound with Cave to take Tommy Bowe’s return pass for the try to score all their points. But when Leali’ifano went off seven minutes into the second-half, it meant new scrumhalf John Cooney came on at outhalf.

It was from Cooney’s missed touch that La Rochelle countered brilliantly for their outstanding number eight, Victor Vito, for the first of the French team’s four converted tries in the third quarter.

Wasps moved above Ulster with Sunday’s 27-10 win over Harlequins, whom Ulster visit in the first of their back-to-back matches on Sunday, December 10th.

Afterwards, Ulster’s attack coach Dwayne Peel maintained they were still very much in contention. “We’ve played two Champions Cup games, we won our home game and lost away, that’s where we lie. There’s still plenty to play for and ultimately we’ve got to turn ourselves around because we’ve got a massive game next week,” Peel said referring to next Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 home game against Leinster.

Surprising win

Likewise, the first of Leinster’s back-to-back meetings with Exeter will be at Sandy Park on the same day, and these clashes with the English champions have been given added importance by Exeter’s surprising 27-24 win over Montpellier in the Altrad Stadium yesterday.

Trailing 24-17 inside the last quarter, Exeter achieved their greatest European win to date courtesy of a 72nd minute penalty by long-serving Irish outhalf Gareth Steenson, whose five kicks from five were hugely significant. Montpellier did pick up two bonus points to give them some hope prior to their meetings with Glasgow Warriors, pointless and marooned after Leinster’s 34-18 win at Scotstoun on Saturday.

Leinster’s pack fronted up and Johnny Sexton led the side superbly, prompting Leo Cullen to praise his returning Irish and Lions outhalf.

“We would have spent a good bit of time with the forwards in looking at what Exeter did. It was pleasing,” Cullen said in reference to Exeter’s 24-15 win over Glasgow a week before, citing the game’s key moment when Sexton backed his forwards by going to the corner a second time at the end of the first-half and being rewarded with a second try for Cian Healy into the wind.

 “We were playing against very difficult conditions. Glasgow chose to play with the wind. I thought we controlled the game well and to go in seven points up at half-time was great for us knowing that we were playing with that wind in the second-half. Glasgow are a constant threat with the players that they have though.”

Cullen also ruled Josh van der Flier out of their meeting with Ulster due to an ankle injury, while he confirmed that Garry Ringrose would not be returning until the end of November.

Points difference

Similarly, Munster host Leicester on Saturday, December 9th, at Thomond Park with the Tigers ahead on points difference thanks to their bonus point win over Castres, although Racing 92 are just a point behind after securing a losing bonus point in Limerick on Saturday.

 “To play the French teams early is always tough,” Rassie Erasmus said. “Sometimes when they’re out of it they tend to start concentrating on Top 14, but the two of them play one another twice and that might be interesting results. The home and away games against Leicester will also be really important and then it depends how you find them in the last few games when you play Castres here and Racing away. This pool will go down to the wire. It’ll be a tough pool.”

The likelihood is that Erasmus won’t still be with Munster come those December matches, pending a work permit for his replacement, per se, Johann van Graan. “I might be still involved for those games, but I think the time is coming closer now,” he said.

Watching from South Africa will not be easy for him. “It’s going to be very tough. Today was also tough, I’m going to miss it a lot. I’ll miss the players, the fans, the atmosphere. I’m going to miss a lot.”

Van Graan was in attendance on Saturday after spending a week observing Munster at work, and noting the greater experience of the expensively assembled Racing, and an average 30-31, as opposed to Munster’s 26, Erasmus said: “We know they’re a big club with a big budget, so we need to play with this [taps heart], we have to be tight, we have to believe in ourselves.”

“If Johann saw that today, that’s what he’s going to get when he comes here. He’s going to get a bunch of guys who really play for the club, supporters who support the team through good and bad times so I think maybe the weather might have frightened or put him off a little, but the whole experience would have been nice for him. He observed or shadowed us the whole week, so he was part of most of the sessions and stuff. He’s got a good understanding of what we do.”