The last time I was in La Rochelle was on board my Yamaha XJR 1300 on a glorious three week lap of France. If you haven’t been, go. And if you make it (on a motorbike) make your way out to Île de Ré. It’s glorious.
I can't imagine Ulster will have too much down time to escape from Stade Marcel-Deflandre on motorbikes but what should they expect? Indeed, what should we expect? Many will know I've grown tired of watching French-financed fatties ploughing away. The good news is that we're in for a cracker. Last weekend La Rochelle secured their bonus point try within 45 minutes. In the Stoop of all places.
Sunday will be La Rochelle’s second ever match in the Champions Cup. So their opening bow was a massive victory over Harlequins in London!
When you contrast and compare La Rochelle to the rest of the bludgeoning Top 14 teams you’ll soon sit up to watch the brutally obvious differences in their game from the money bags version of Montpellier. Throughout their side there’ll be fresh new names for the Irish public, but the team is sprinkled with class (do your research!).
In the number five jersey is the more than healthy 134kg Fijian international Jone Qovu Nailiko. And here is where Ulster need to focus. With due respect to Harlequins and Wasps, Ulster will have no excuse if they don't qualifying for the knockout stages but La Rochelle will present a massive hurdle. Do not underestimate them as Ulster's season swings on Sunday.
The middle games of three and four are always the crucial foundation fixtures and Ulster have Harlequins away in that third game. The worry is Quins will be far better by December 10th, so Ulster must win on Sunday for many reasons – particularly to remind themselves that the engine room is where these games are won and lost and that’s my fear for Ulster. Can they dominate not just French monsters, but motivated French monsters?
What should we expect? Well, the Top 14 is a confusing place to read but La Rochelle have the most of pretty much everything (apart from match points); carries, passes, offloads, clean breaks, metres made and are third best in points scored. Following on from my reflections last Friday on the vulnerability of the ball carrier in a building ruck count, La Rochelle failed to gather the Quins kick off. But when Joe Marler carried into contact for Quns the French made their tackle and immediately peeled away. Three more tackles followed and by the fifth tackle loose head prop Dany Priso jackalled brilliantly to force a penalty at the breakdown.
Five easy tackles with 14 La Rochelle players peeling away makes that Ulster ball carrier extremely vulnerable as the recycles build. And Priso is not easily shifted. So Ulster will go to deck at their peril; 34 seconds is all it took La Rochelle to force the turnover.
In contrast, when building a flow La Rochelle may hit a wider target but as the Quins (or Ulster on Sunday) peel away mimicking the French defence the big front five ball carriers pick from very low, stay low and power up the middle of the ruck. Remember a ruck is formed as soon as one other player engages prompting the remaining 14 to peel away. La Rochelle simply run at the weakest part of this defence – up the middle.
This is not their only trick. Yes they have the bulk but they, unlike most Top 14 sides, are of a much higher technical quality. Take tighthead Uini Atonio (137kg). In the French jersey there are at best about 15 minutes concentration and application in him but with La Rochelle his lineout maul technique is top class.
They certainly are the best team in France and possibly in Europe at transition, which is where they are at their most potent. Transition? The ability to go from defending to attacking in a moment’s notice, and as the opposition (having spilled the ball) are transitioning from attack into defence, there is that sweet moment of time where anything is possible. Here is where La Rochelle can hurt teams.
On 10:25 Quins' Tim Visser cleared (poorly) from his own 22. La Rochelle went through an immediate transition with their entire team focused on the shift to attack as their fullback Kini Murimurivalu fielded. It was all planned. Murimurivalu fired infield to Ryan Lamb with All Black Victor Vito powering off Lamb. From there, scrumhalf Alexi Bales elected a series of varied options; fatties tight, rewinds, blindside, openside, active wingers, or pick and show himself to fix the fringe and on and on.
Lamb is a tad passive at outhalf but the lines and acceleration of the support runners are breathtaking. Put simply, every La Rochelle ball carrier looks totally comfortable on the gainline. Some 22 seconds later Harlequins conceded a breakdown penalty having been shifted over and back like a poor tennis player on the base line.
So Ulster have a major tactical quandary. Do they speed up the game, or carry into contact building phases to exploit space wider out? Ulster know that La Rochelle will peel away until that fourth or fifth breakdown where they’ll attack the vulnerable Ulster carrier? So do they pile men in to secure the ball carrier – thereby losing valuable attackers as La Rochelle maintain their 14 defenders ready to pounce for a turnover leaving 14 La Rochelle attackers facing just nine Ulster defenders?
Or do Ulster go to the set piece and expect a positive outcome against Qovu Nailiko, Antonio et al?
Short lineouts will aid Ulster in securing the ball but at the cost of a packed midfield. But the answer could lie here. The big men of La Rochelle do tire and the subtle space around Qovu and Antonio is vulnerable to attack. It’s extremely subtle but it does open and shut regularly. Like any chain of three defence, the man in the middle, if prone to fatigue, is prone to getting lazy and when Qovu follows the ball in defence there’s a hole behind him. So can Ulster interest the La Rochelle pack sufficiently to fatigue them before asking subtle questions around the branches?
This is going to be a cracking game and one that’ll push Ulster to their absolute limits.