Les Kiss has made five changes for the visit of La Rochelle in Ulster Rugby’s fifth match in the 2017/2018 Champions Cup group stage.

Craig Gilroy returns to the right wing after missing the match against Leinster while Dave Shanahan could make his first appearance since round five of the Guinness PRO14 if he comes off the bench.

It’s an unchanged front row of Callum Black, Rory Best and Rodney Ah You from the humiliation in the RDS last Saturday. Alan O’Connor returns to the second row to replace Pete Browne and is joined by Iain Henderson. Jean Deysel drops out of the back row with Nick Timoney taking his place. Both Matthew Rea and Sean Reidy remain as Ulster’s flankers.

Christian Lealiifano partners John Cooney at half back for the very last time at the Kingspan Stadium. Stuart McCloskey starts at inside centre for the third game in a row while Louis Ludik recovers from an illness which ruled him out of the matches against Munster and Leinster to start at 13. It’s a familiar back three of Jacob Stockdale, Craig Gilroy and Charles Piutau.

It’s got to the stage where we’re hoping for an Ulster retaliation rather than expecting one after a heavy defeat. A few of the selections have raised some questions; Dave Shanahan has been included in the panel after a long absence from the Ulster set up while Kiss persists with Rodney Ah You who is yet to impress in an Ulster jersey. Ah You’s contract runs out at the end of the season and I will be surprised if he is on the Ulster roster next season.

La Rochelle haven’t been as convincing since Ulster’s visit to the Stade Marcel-Deflandre. Last week saw La Rochelle draw away to bottom side Oyonnax in the Top14 while Wasps comfortably defeated the Atlantic side in the second match during the European back to backs. However they still have lost the least number of matches in their league and only sit a point behind leaders Montpellier. A win for La Rochelle secures top spot in the group and stakes a claim for top seeds in the second round but with win almost certain on the French Atlantic coast against Harlequins next week, there is a question of whether they will target this game.

The visitors have named a strong team. Victor Vito was incredible in the first game between the sides and starts at number 8. Jeremy Sinzelle, who started on the wing and scored a try in the previous match, starts at out-half in replace of Ryan Lamb. Pierre Aguillon and Geoffrey Doumayrou start at centre while they can call on the expertise of All Black-capped Tawera Kerr-Barlow on the replacements’ bench.

If Ulster are to win tomorrow, they need to control the majority of possession and territory, something that’s easier said than done against quality opposition. Similarly, the forwards need to gain parity in the scrum and at the breakdown while the lineout needs to function well. It seems obvious to say, but accuracy and aggression – both have been missing from recent performances – needs to be rediscovered. Ulster have a tendency to lift the performance for the arrival of foreign opposition and while I expect this to be no different, attitude counts a lot towards determining the outcome of a match.

It’s hard to believe that European qualification is still in Ulster’s hands after the last few weeks. A shift in focus can and often does produce a different mindset and therefore performance from the players.

The FRU predicts: I normally back Ulster at home and despite the strength of the visitors, I’m still going to back Ulster as they aim to bounce back from a miserable set of results. Ulster to win narrowly in a high scoring affair.

Ulster   La Rochelle
Charles Piutau 15 Kini Murimurivalu
Craig Gilroy 14 Gabriel Lacroix
Louis Ludik 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou
Stuart McCloskey 12 Pierre Aguillon
Jacob Stockdale 11 Vincent Rattez
Christian Lealiifano 10 Jérémy Sinzelle
John Cooney 9 Alexi Bales
Callum Black 1 Dany Priso
Rory Best (capt) 2 Pierre Bourgarit
Rodney Ah You 3 Uini Atonio
Alan O’Connor 4 Jason Eaton (capt)
Iain Henderson 5 Mathieu Tanguy
Matt Rea 6 Botia Veivuke
Sean Reidy 7 Kevin Gourdon
Nick Timoney 8 Victor Vito
Rob Herring 16 Jean-Charles Orioli
Kyle McCall 17 Vincent Pelo
Ross Kane 18 Mohamed Boughanmi
Kieran Treadwell 19 Gregory Lamboley
Chris Henry 20 Afa Amosa
David Shanahan 21 Tawera Kerr Barlow
Johnny McPhillips 22 Benjamin Nobles
Darren Cave 23 Paul Jordaan

 

Do you agree or disagree? We'd love to read your comments.