Ulster succumbed to second half blitz against French high-flyers, La Rochelle, to lose 41-17 at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre.
Christian Lealiifano and Tommy Bowe were the Ulster try scorers, but tries from Kevin Gourdon, Pierre Aguillon and Jason Eaton within six minutes of each other killed any hope that Ulster had of an upset.
Ulster’s first half was a positive. Jeremy Sinzelle capitalised on an Ulster handling error to score the game’s first try but Ulster bounced back for one of their own. Taken out of the Leinster playbook, a loop between Lealiifano and Darren Cave created an overlap for Tommy Bowe. A dummy run from Charles Piutau attracted the attention of two defenders, allowing Lealiifano and Bowe a two on one.
Paul Marshall had only played 81 minutes of rugby prior to this game but his kicking helped put La Rochelle on the back foot in the first half. Ulster’s forwards fronted up which gave Marshall quick ball to release the backs. Piutau used the quick ball to exploit gaps in the home side’s defence in the 15m channels but La Rochelle always managed to scramble cover across.
Despite controlling the territory and possession for the fifteen minutes after their score, Ulster only managed to come away with three points. This was costly as La Rochelle scored with all of their attacks in the second half. Piutau gained 129 metres off 16 carries, a personal best this season, but he was not as effective after the interval as he was in the first half, largely due to Ulster’s 46% possession and 34% territory. In the first ten minutes, La Rochelle struggled to contain the All Black.
Ulster survived a barrage of attacks from the home side in the first ten minutes of the second half but their defence finally gave way to a Victor Vito score. John Cooney’s clearance kick didn’t find touch and Gabriel Lacroix exploited a staggered Ulster chase. Ulster’s scramble defence wasn’t enough to prevent the superb offloads from Lacroix and Geoffrey Doumayrou.
We all thought that Ulster had a good chance if they could stay within an arm’s reach of La Rochelle at the hour mark however Ulster’s flood gates finally broke. Kevin Gourdon crossed for his side’s third try and Pierre Aguillon scored the bonus point try minutes later.
In a time where Ulster were on the ropes and needed several phases to stem the relentless La Rochelle pressure, ill-discipline from the restarts after Gourdon and Aguillon’s tries allowed the home side to achieve a good platform in Ulster territory. Jason Eaton scored in the corner after great hands from Victor Vito and add a little gloss to the score line.
Tommy Bowe gathered a kick through from Charles Piutau for a consolation try to leave the final score 41-17. La Rochelle were sublime and punished every mistake and I doubt that Ulster will come up against a better team this season.
A lot of criticism has been levelled at the forwards in recent years but I thought they fronted up in both attack and defence. Iain Henderson, Alan O’Connor and Sean Reidy all reached the double figures in the tackle count without missing any while Chris Henry made the most turnovers of any player in this game week. The lineout was a concern in recent matches, but Rob Herring, and Rory Best, achieved 100% accuracy (10/10) and despite a hefty weight disadvantage at the scrum, Ulster won all their ball.
It’s easy to forget that Ulster were huge underdogs going into this match but it will be hard to pick themselves up after the hammering. Leinster are welcomed to Kingspan next Saturday and there’s no better way to move on from a heavy defeat than to beat your closest rivals!
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Tommy Bowe, Christian Lealiifano, Paul Marshall; Callum Black, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy. Replacements: Rory Best, Andrew Warwick, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, Matthew Rea, John Cooney, Luke Marshall, Jacob Stockdale.