Ulster 20 La Rochelle 13
The timing could hardly have been better as Ulster dug out a performance top-heavy with belligerence, somewhat fitting in the traditionally dire Belfast weather, to edge them tantalisingly close to making the last eight of the Champions Cup.
And therein lies the rub as Les Kiss’s side need to mine this rarely seen seam of cussedness again on Sunday as the now Pool One leaders know they are in must-win territory with a bonus-point victory at Wasps, who suffered a shock defeat at Harlequins and are five behind Ulster, guaranteeing top spot and automatic qualification.
Putting two big performances together has been a struggle for Ulster in what has been a less than convincing season and with La Rochelle – who are now one off the northern province after being deposed by them – expected to put on a sizeable score at home to Harlequins, just getting a regulation win in Coventry will be enough to secure progress as a best runner-up.
So, Ulster are in control of their own destiny which, though a good place to be, was still met with caution by Kiss who has been under intense pressure of late.
And, after all, though Kiss's charges – inspired by eye-catching efforts from skipper and man of the match Rory Best, along with the indomitable Iain Henderson – somehow survived being regularly milled at scrum time, they still fell short when it came to getting the fourth try on offer late on and, also, couldn't manage to deny La Rochelle their own handy enough losing bonus point.
Top of pool
“It would have been nice to deny them that point but we’re still top of the pool,” said Kiss.
“It’s a satisfying feeling to be top of the pool and we’re in charge of ourselves now. The boys turned up in a real vicious mood. They were just belligerent and said ‘let’s stand up’ and they got a return.
“We saw something here and we need to deliver that again next week [at Wasps]. But we know it’s a half-job done and that’s the challenge to step up again next week and nail this,” added the Australian.
That they took four points from Saturday was all down to a heady combination of Ulster’s iron will to resist and ability to defend with a rare meanness, which came closely allied with some good fortune and La Rochelle’s now rather familiar flakiness when venturing away from home.
Indeed, the visitors had control of the game but gradually lost their grip and had cause to feel aggrieved when a series of scrums from penalties near the Ulster line, around the hour mark, failed to persuade Wayne Barnes to act by either brandishing a yellow card or awarding a penalty try.
Indeed, the visitors had started in cruise control and Alexi Bales had two early penalties in the bag by the first quarter.
But Ulster got back in the game through Paul Jordaan’s unlucky-looking 22nd minute yellow card with Best getting on the back of a driving maul after Christian Leali’ifano – playing his final home game before returning to Australia – put a penalty into the corner.
Jacob Stockdale then somehow skinned three defenders – though Louis Ludik's pass looked a tad forward – to score in the same corner five minutes before half-time which put Ulster 10-6 up.
Bale's 42nd minute try, off a Victor Vito break, had La Rochelle back in charge but, two minutes later, they sloppily spilt a ball in their 22 and Nick Timoney charged over from a Darren Cave assist.
John Cooney converted and added a 50th minute penalty to put the province 20-13 ahead and, strangely, there were no further scores to be had as both sides bludgeoned it out in the cold and wet to give a relieved Best his first win in an Ulster shirt for over a year.
Now it’s game on at the Ricoh Arena.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins - Bales pen 0-3, 15 mins - Bales pen 0-6, 27 mins - Best try 5-6, 35 mins - Stockdale try 10-6, half-time 10-6, 42 mins - Bales try 10-11, Bales con 10-13, 44 mins - try Timoney 15-13, Cooney con 17-13, 49 mins - Cooney pen 20-13.
Ulster: C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Ludik, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; C Black, R Best (captain), R Ah You, A O'Connor, I Henderson, M Rea, S Reidy, N Timoney. Replacements: D Cave for Gilroy 25mins, K McCall for Black and K Treadwell for Rea both 57mins, R Kane for Ah You and C Henry for Reidy both 63 mins, R Herring for Best mins, J McPhillips for Leali'ifano both 72mins. Not used: D Shanahan
La Rochelle: K Murimurivalu; G Lacroix, G Doumayrou, P Aguillon, V Rattez; J Sinzelle, A Bales; D Priso, P Bourgarit, U Atonio, J Eaton, M Tanguy, B Veivuke, K Gourdon, V Vito. Replacements: P Jordaan for Lacroix 10mins, T Kerr Barlow for Bales 60mins, J-C Orioli for Priso, V Pelo for Bourgarit, M Boughanmi for Atonio, A Amosa for Vito, all 63mins, G Lamboley for Tanguy and B Nobles for Aguillon both 64mins
Yellow card: Jordaan 22-32mins
Referee: W Barnes (RFU)