European Champions Cup Pool 1La Rochelle (13) 41Tries: Sinzelle, Vito, Gourdon, Aguillon, Eaton Cons: Lamb, Bales 2, Goillot 2 Pens: Bales 2Ulster (10) 17Tries: Lealiifano, Bowe Cons: Lealiifano, Cooney Pen: Lealiifano
La Rochelle took control of Champions Cup Pool One with an impressive bonus-point win over Ulster in their first-ever home game in the competition.
The Top 14 side led 13-10 at half-time with the help of a Jeremy Sinzelle try, with Victor Vito, Kevin Gourdon, Pierre Aguillon and Jason Eaton also crossing.
Christian Lealiifano and Tommy Bowe were Ulster’s try-scorers.
Tournament newcomers La Rochelle have a maximum 10 points from their first two games, with Ulster on four points.
Ulster are now third in the pool, a point behind Wasps who humbled ran in five tries as they defeated fellow Premiership side .
The hosts opened their maiden Champions Cup campaign with a 34-27 victory over Harlequins last week and after an evenly-contested first half at Stade Marcel Deflandre, they dominated a second period characterised by their clinical finishing, accurate offloading and physical and territorial dominance.
The French outfit were unbeaten in domestic competition on their home ground last season as they finished top of the Top 14 standings, although rivals Clermont Auvergne triumphed in the end-of-season play-offs.
That record gave some indication of the uphill task facing Ulster, who had beaten Montpellier, Castres, Toulouse and Oyonnax on French soil in recent years.
Ulster in it at the interval
It took only two minutes for the home side to breach the visitors’ defence when Andrew Trimble’s record 222nd appearance started with an errant pass that was intercepted and ended with Senzelle providing the finish after a quick breakaway move.
Lealiifano was central to creating his own try seven minutes later as Ulster moved the ball quickly through the hands, Bowe providing the final inside pass for the Australia fly-half to score.
Lealiifano’s penalty nudged Ulster in front and with Charles Piutau pulling the strings with moments of individual brilliance, the Irish province were well in the match.
Gabriel Lacroix had a try disallowed for a forward pass as La Rochelle began to carve out scoring opportunities in a strong finish to an exciting, energy-sapping first half.
Both teams were resolute in defence and enterprising in attack throughout the opening period but it was the French side who enjoyed a three-point lead at the break thanks to two Alexis Bales penalties.
La Rochelle rule second half
Former All Black number eight Vito, last year’s Top 14 player of the season, finished off a rapid counter-attack from the halfway line by his side soon after the re-start by ploughing through the middle of Ulster’s defence and diving over.
Paul Jordaan had his score ruled out for having a foot in touch after Vito had fashioned the chance with an imperious piece of skill to pluck the ball out of the air – but it was not long until his side’s territorial dominance paid dividends.
Gourdon darted through a gap between Chris Henry and Paul Marshall to barge over, centre Pierre Aguillon went over in the corner and Eaton did likewise as La Rochelle were rewarded for playing most of the second half inside Ulster’s 22.
Bowe ran in a late consolation try after a clever grubber kick through by Piutau.
Among Ulster’s replacements was versatile forward Robbie Diack, who became only the third Ulster player to make 200 appearances for the province.
La Rochelle: Rattez; Lacroix, Doumayrou, Aguillon, Sinzelle; Lamb, Bales; Priso, Forbes, Atonio; Eaton, Qovu Nailiko, Veivuke, Gourdon, Vito.
Replacements: Bourgarit, Corbel, Pelo, Demotte, Sazy, Goillot, Jordaan, Roudil
Ulster: Piutau; Trimble, Cave, McCloskey, Bowe; Lealiifano, Marshall; Black, Herring, Herbst; Treadwell, O’Connor; Henderson (capt), Henry, Reidy.
Replacements: Best, McCall, Ah You, Diack, Rea, Cooney, Marshall, Stockdale.