La Rochelle v Ulster, Stade Marcel Deflandre (3.15, Sunday, live on Sky Sports)
Ulster's team selection reveals a little of their mindset, or more specifically that of the coaching axis of Les Kiss, Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel, and the qualities they feel are required to be competitive against an in-form team in France.
There are clues to be found in the selection of the wings and the outside centre. Experience is a cherished virtue for this assignment but so too is physical power. Darren Cave, noted for his defensive organisation amongst other qualities, returns at outside centre.
The long-standing playing relationship he enjoys with wings Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe is an important factor in a game which Ulster will expect to have to defend for long periods. La Rochelle like to move the ball, so good communication and positioning from an Ulster perspective, will simplify trying to shut down the outside channels.
Trimble will become Ulster’s most capped player in their history in making his 222nd appearance, an occasion he’d love to mark with a victory.
His power on the ball, aggression in the tackle and heat-seeking kick-chase are important components in his team’s game plan and those qualities are mirrored in a couple of characteristics by his fellow Irish international wing, Bowe.
The Ulster coaching team has plumped for the Cave, Bowe and Trimble combination over the delightfully nuanced attacking qualities of Luke Marshall, Louis Ludik and one of the brightest prospects in Irish rugby, Jacob Stockdale. Marshall and Stockdale are on the bench; the composition of the replacements will allow Ulster to raise the tempo of the match if that is what's required.
Trimble will pop up from the blindside wing, taking passes inside or outside outhalf Christian Lealiifano, Bowe will look to the skies for the outhalf's cross-kicks while Cave still possesses that predator's instincts in running clever trail lines and he should benefit in that respect from playing alongside Stuart McCloskey who has been consistently excellent in accruing yardage.
Alan O'Connor's return to the pack, allows captain Iain Henderson to continue in the back row. The return, albeit initially to the bench on Sunday, of Ireland captain Rory Best following a hamstring injury in training a month ago is timely for both province and country. He hasn't played yet this season to the opportunity to stockpile minutes is a pressing concern.
This Champions Cup match also offers a notable milestone for South African -born, Irish international Robbie Diack. He first came to the province in 2008 and if introduced on Sunday, he will win his 200th Ulster cap, a landmark that reflects quality and durability in a player who doesn't always get the recognition his contribution merits.
La Rochelle are an excellent team – they finished top of the league proper before losing out in the playoffs in last year’s Top 14 and currently lie fourth with five wins and two defeats – well drilled, coached and set-up.
Gibbes points out: “They are confident and they’ve built up a good understanding of what they’re trying to do and of what makes them difficult to play against. They’ve had a lot of success with that.
“They are one of the better French teams in defence and are well-coached. They are comfortable with the ball and they’ve got a lot better without it as well. When they run the ball from their own 22 or the dead ball line they look as comfortable doing that as they do inside the opposition’s 22. They’re pretty resilient at home too so it’s a daunting task.”
The team is sprinkled with stardust, former All Blacks Victor Vito and Jason Eaton included, but the quality of the collective makes them an irresistible force. Last week they beat Harlequins at The Stoop, returning with a try bonus point in the first ever game in Europe.
It’s a massive physical challenge for Ulster but also a huge mental one. The Irish province has struggled too often on the road in Europe. This season they need that to change. It’s a tough ask but they need to return to Belfast with something tangible.
LA ROCHELLE: V Rattez; G Lacroix, G Doumayrou, P Aguillon, J Sinzelle; R Lamb, A Bales; D Priso, H Forbes, U Atonio; J Eaton, J Qovu Nailiko; B Veivuke, K Gourdon, V Vito. Replacements: P Bourgarit, M Corbel, V Pelo, W Demotte, R Sazy, J-V Goillot, P Jordaan, E Roudil.
ULSTER: C Piutau; A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, T Bowe; C Lealiifano, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst; K Treadwell, A O'Connor; I Henderson (capt), C Henry, S Reidy. Replacements: R Best, K McCall, R Ah You, R Diack, M Rea, J Cooney, L Marshall, J Stockdale.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)