Ulster stun La Rochelle monsters
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP REPORT: Ulster pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season when they beat French giants La Rochelle 20-13 at a packed Kingspan Stadium on Saturday.
Not only did the Irish province outscore their French opponents by three tries to one, but the win also put them at the top of Pool One.
Despite the dominance of the monstrous French pack, Ulster found enough heart to tackle La Rochelle into submission.
Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best led from the front with 12 carries, six tackles and a try, while Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney also graced the scoresheet as hosts kept the race for quarter-final berths wide open with a crucial triumph, as Alexis Bales scored all the points in a losing effort from La Rochelle.
The northern province's European campaign teetered on a knife-edge entering this contest.
Out of form and apparently low on confidence and ideas in the Pro14 they came into the contest as underdogs.
First half tries from veteran hooker Rory Best and star wing Jacob Stockdale had the hosts ahead at the break, before Nick Timoney's second half score secured the four points.
Ulster are now one ahead of La Rochelle at the top of the pool ahead of their trip to Wasps next Sunday.
The opening exchanges provided nothing but ominous signs from the team who swept five tries past Ulster in October.
Levani Botia was breaking tackles, Alexi Bales had an endless array of angles and runners to choose from and for 20 long minutes Ulster could barely escape their half.
The best setup the first quarter had to offer the hosts was a penalty inside Rochelais territory.
With a sharp wind deterring kickers, Christian Lealiifano - on his last outing at Kingspan Stadium – was directed to touch, but his kick fell horribly short. A scrum was a welcome return for Ulster. Unfortunately, that went awry. And soon so too did the line-out 40 metres from their own posts. A litany of errors, missteps and mistimings helping to set up Bales' second penalty of the day.
A six-point deficit began to look remarkably steep. When the hosts put multiple phases of possession together midway through the first half, they found themselves running down black and yellow alleys and were continually dumped on the back foot by a solid defence led by Geoffrey Dumayrou, Kevin Gourdon and Botia
Ulster got the first try, however, after Paul Jordaan was yellow carded for taking Charles Piutau out in the air, and Rory Best carried a maul over the line, spinning over and dotting down in the corner.
That became two just before the break as Jacob Stockdale shrugged off the interests of Vincent Rattez to dance his way over in the tightest of angles at the corner.
The fear of a comeback was very real, and two minutes after the break La Rochelle struck, Victor Vito picking and going from a ruck and bursting through before sending Bales the rest of the way for the score.
Immediately Ulster responded, Darren Cave pounding on a loose ball and feeding Nick Timoney, who held off two tacklers to get the touchdown from the restart.
La Rochelle had a dominant pack, and their scrum set to work by taking over up front, however they couldn't force a penalty try after several set pieces on the five-metre line and, when Vito broke off the back, his offload went loose and the chance was gone.
That allowed Ulster to hang on, and arguably they squandered a bonus point try when they had several chances towards the end to get a fourth try, but ultimately their destiny is still in their own hands as they travel to Wasps next Sunday knowing a win will have them in the last eight.
Tries: Best, Stockdale, Timoney
For La Rochelle:
Pens: Bales 2
Yellow card: Paul Jordaan (La Rochelle, 23 - foul play, taking out the man in the air)
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 John Cooney, 8 Nick Timoney, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Matty Rea, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Alan O'Connor, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Dave Shanahan, 22 Johnny McPhillips, 23 Darren Cave.
La Rochelle: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Gabriel Lacroix, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Pierre Aguillon, 11 Vincent Rattez, 10 Jérémy Sinzelle, 9 Alexi Bales, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Levani Botia, 5 Mathieu Tanguy, 4 Jason Eaton, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 1 Dany Priso.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Vincent Pelo, 18 Mohamed Boughanmi, 19 Gregory Lamboley, 20 Afa Amosa, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Benjamin Nobles, 23 Paul Jordaan.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Matthew O'Grady (England)
TMO: Geoff Warren (England)