Ulster need a big improvement to keep European hopes alive
Recent performances suggest province have it all to do against impressive La Rochelle
La Rochelle’s Fijian centre Levani Botia will pose a big threat to Ulster in the Champions Cup clash at the Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Xavier Leoty/AFP/Getty Images)
Ulster v La Rochelle, Saturday, Kingspan Stadium, 1.0. Live Sky Sports Action
There is a temptation to describe this Champions Cup tie as a watershed moment that will define Ulster’s season but that largely presupposes a defeat, the primary legacy of which would be to deny access to further progress in Europe.
Victory would allow the statement to roll over to the following weekend where the Irish province would require something in the form of a point(s) from a trip to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry where Wasps await, the mathematics of which, have yet to be ascertained.
Put simply, Ulster must win and do so against a backdrop of absent friends, a debilitating injury list and recent performances that have been largely disappointing in content as well as outcome. They face a La Rochelle team that lie second in the French Top14 and play an expansive brand of rugby that can be difficult to contain.
The French club haven’t repeated the error of sending over a composite side as they did against Wasps in December. La Rochelle know that a win at the Kingspan Stadium and a similar result in the home game against a Harlequins side that have lost all four of their pool matches to date will guarantee a top four seeding and a quarter-final on home soil.
Cosmopolitan in nationality, the La Rochelle starting team contains Fijians, Kini Murimurivalu and Botia Veivuke, French internationals Geoffrey Doumayrou, Uini Atonio and Kevin Gourdon and a couple of former All Blacks in captain, Jason Eaton and number eight Victor Vito; there are a further four players with Test match experience among the replacements.
Wiehahn Herbst’s calf issue that forced his late withdrawal – Ross Kane was pulled from the ‘A’ side for a British & Irish Cup match to sit on the bench – adds more grist to Ulster’s mill of misfortune.
Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik and John Cooney return to the backline, Alan O’Connor has been chosen to partner Iain Henderson, who switches to the secondrow and Matty Rea is named in a young backrow in which New Zealand-born Irish international Sean Reidy provides the experience. Dave Shanahan covers scrumhalf.
Roared on by their typically passionate supporters, Ulster have a window of 10 minutes to set the tone physically for the afternoon, to make a statement of intent and one that would ideally be represented on the scoreboard to boot.
The home side won’t mind that the weather forecast suggests heavy showers, conditions to which La Rochelle failed to adjust to when losing to Wasps in Coventry. Ulster need to be pitch-perfect in the set piece – they have the lowest percentage (81) in the tournament of ball won on their throw – and certainly can’t afford to be dominated in the manner they were in the first half of a comeback win over Munster.
There’s enough footballing ability in the backline and a cutting edge in the back three to turn possession into points but halfbacks John Cooney and Christian Leali’iafno, who plays his last home game in an Ulster shirt, need a decent platform. It would be opportune if Charles Piutau was at his unplayable best.
Ulster’s defence has to go up several notches from recent performances against a side who heavily favour, and are very good at, the offloading game, while also capable of bludgeoning sides through sheer power.
La Rochelle start as two-point favourites with the bookmakers so Ulster must win against the head, so to speak, and to do so they’ll need a performance of rare quality – particularly this season to date.
ULSTER: C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Ludik, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; C Black, R Best, R Ah You; A O’Connor, I Henderson; M Rea, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: R Herring, K McCall, R Kane, K Treadwell, C Henry, D Shanahan, J McPhillips, D Cave.
LA ROCHELLE: K Murimurivalu; G Lacroix, G Doumayrou, P Aguillon, V Rattez; J Sinzelle, A Bales; D Priso, P Bourgarit, U Atonio; J Eaton (capt), M Tanguy; B Veivuke, K Gourdon, V Vito.
Replacements: J-C Orioli, V Pelo, M Boughanmi, G Lamboley, A Amosa, T Kerr Barlow, B Nobles, P Jordaan.
Referee: W Barnes (England) .