European Champions Cup Pool 1Ulster (10) 20Tries: Best, Stockdale, Timoney Con: Cooney Pen: CooneyLa Rochelle (6) 13Try: Bales Con: Bales Pens: Bales 2
Ulster have swept to the top of Pool One in the European Champions Cup after a dogged win over La Rochelle.
Tries by Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney earned the home side a deserved 20-13 victory in grey and soggy conditions at Kingspan Stadium.
Scrum-half Alexi Bales scored all of La Rochelle’s points as the visitors scrambled to a losing bonus point.
The win leaves Ulster with a one point lead over La Rochelle going into the final round of pool matches.
Ulster are now in pole position to advance as pool winners after Wasps’ dramatic 33-28 loss to Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop ended their chances of topping the group.
Les Kiss’s side will travel to the Ricoh Arena next week knowing that a bonus-point win against Wasps could secure a home quarter-final draw.
Ulster recover from slow start
In their first Champions Cup game in Ireland, La Rochelle weren’t discouraged by the wet and windy weather with Bales dispatching two early penalties between the posts.
In contrast, Ulster’s initial attacking efforts were repeatedly forced backwards but their hopes received an unexpected boost in the 23rd minute when La Rochelle substitute Paul Jordaan was sent to the sin bin for taking out Charles Piutau in the air.
The home side took just five minutes to make their numerical advantage count as Best forced his way over the line for the game’s opening try after a powerful lineout maul.
The momentum was now firmly with the hosts and they deservedly took the lead in the 35th minute when Jacob Stockdale stooped to take a low pass from Louis Ludik and score in the corner.
The French side regained the lead at the start of the second half when Bales finished-off a swift counter-attacking try led by former All Black Victor Vito.
Ulster refused to be intimidated by the Top 14 giants as they produced the perfect response.
Quick thinking by Darren Cave forced a turnover close to the visitors’ line, which allowed Timoney to dive over for the decisive score.
From the restart, Charles Piutau combined with Stockdale along the left wing as Ulster went straight back on the attack and earned a straightforward penalty for John Cooney.
The Ulster defence was repeatedly tested during the final quarter but Vito was unable to force his way over from a five metre scrum before a turnover won by Stockdale eased the pressure.
The Irish side finished the game on the front foot but couldn’t engineer another score that would have denied their opponents a consolation point, which leaves both teams in contention going into the final round of pool matches.
CHAMPIONS CUP POOL 1TeamPlayedWonLostForAgainstBonus PtsPointsUlster54112592117La Rochelle532140114416Wasps523128114412Harlequins5149917237Post-match reaction:
Ulster assistant coach Dwayne Peel on BBC Radio Ulster: “It was a good effort from us. You look at La Rochelle’s performances in Europe and what they’ve done in the Top 14 and they’re a real top side and there was a lot of character shown today in difficult conditions as well.”
“They were in control at six points to nil [ahead] but we probably didn’t help ourselves in the first quarter of an hour. We spilled too much ball and we had a couple of opportunities and turned the ball over cheaply which gave them position in our territory but we stuck at it and got the two tries before half-time. The second-half, I thought, was an even contest and we played well and managed to stick in there.”
“At least it is in our own hands now going into next week so we’ve got a massive week ahead for us.”
“It was nail-biting. We pummelled their line for the last 10 minutes and didn’t manage to get that bonus point, which would have been lovely but we’ll take that win and it’s a performance we can be proud of.”
Ulster: C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Ludik, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; C Black, R Best (capt), R Ah You; A O’Connor, I Henderson; M Rea, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: R Herring (for R Best, 73), K McCall (for C Black, 58), R Kane (for R Ah You, 64), K Treadwell (for M Rea, 58), C Henry (for S Reidy, 64), D Shanahan, J McPhillips (for C Lealiifano, 73), D Cave (for C Gilroy, 27).
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, L Botia, K Gourdon, V Vito.
Replacements: Jean-Charles Orioli (for P Bourgarit, 64), V Pelo (for D Priso, 64), M Boughanmi (for U Atonio, 64), G Lamboley (for M Tanguy, 64), A Amosa (for V Vito, 64), T Kerr Barlow (for A Bales, 61), B Nobles (for Jordaan, 65), P Jordaan (for G Lacroix, 11).