Ulster fight tooth and nail for crucial win

Ulster top Pool One but plenty of work needed to ensure qualification

 Iain Henderson   collects a lineout ball during the win over La Rochelle at Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Iain Henderson collects a lineout ball during the win over La Rochelle at Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss praised his side’s battling qualities after Saturday’s hard-fought 20-13 triumph over La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup.

The result at a wet and windy Kingspan Stadium put the northern province top of Pool One - a point ahead of their visitors - and in with a good chance of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time since 2014.

“The boys turned up in a real vicious mood, similar to Harlequins (17-5 win at the Twickenham Stoop on December 10th) and we did that (a similar performance) again,” he said.

Regarding Ulster having won 19 turnovers over the visitors, he said: “If our attitude was going to show through, it was going to show through in that area.”

A bonus-point win for Ulster in the final round of group games at Wasps next week will guarantee them a top-place finish, though La Rochelle’s losing bonus point from Belfast could also prove crucial for their ambitions - they host Harlequins, who are out of the running, next weekend.

Captain and man of the match Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney scored tries for the hosts, with John Cooney adding one conversion and one penalty, while the visitors’ points - including the first six of the game, via two penalties - all came from Alexi Bales.

Kiss felt surviving a number of scrums and subsequent penalties near the Ulster line around the hour mark had been key to his side holding on to their lead.

“There were a lot of very important moments in the game but I think that was critical for us,” the Australian said. “We didn’t want to go to scrums that often and we had that sequence of scrums in that area and it wasn’t ideal, but we just held strong enough and I think that was critical and the turning point.

Ulster’s Charles Piutau after the game. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Ulster’s Charles Piutau after the game. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

“Then we got down the other end of the pitch and most of the rest of the game was spent in that area.”

Ulster dominated the closing stages but just could not score the fourth try which would have put them in a stronger position to finish as pool winners. Kiss continued: “We just couldn’t get that extra try, but in this type of competition, as the Munster sides of old would have told you, you just have to get what you get out of it.

“It would have been nice to deny them that point, but we’re still top of the pool.”

La Rochelle skipper Jason Eaton admitted Ulster deserved their win, although he was deeply disappointed that his side failed to put themselves in prime position to top the group.

“Our aim was to get a win and try and secure qualification and a home quarter-final, but credit to Ulster - they were very good,” he said. “We didn’t take their chances when we had them and we didn’t do enough to win. Taking one point is better than nothing so we’ll reassess next week and hopefully try and change things for next week.”

Reacting to whether Ulster were lucky not to concede a yellow card after that series of scrum penalties near their line late in the game, the New Zealander said: “For me, as a captain I wanted to put pressure on them in the scrum and get penalties and maybe a penalty try and maybe a yellow card, but it was unfortunate that we took no points at all in that crucial part of the game.

“It wasn’t the difference in the match, but that was a huge part in us not winning.”

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