La Rochelle claim another big scalp
CHAMPIONS CUP REPORT: La Rochelle remained unbeaten after a stunning second-half performance to beat Ulster 41-17 at Stade Marcel-Deflandre on Sunday.
La Rochelle marked their first home match on the European stage five-try rout of the Irish giants.
The Top 14 side, who saw off Harlequins 34-27 last weekend, lead Pool One with 10 points from their back-to-back bonus point wins.
La Rochelle had only led 13-10 at the interval - with Jeremy Sinzelle scoring his team's only try, while Christian Lealiifano levelled to make it 7-all.
Alexi Bales popped over two penalties while the boot of Lealiifano kept Ulster, who started their campaign with a 19-9 win over Wasps, in touch.
But La Rochelle racked up 28 unanswered points in the second half - with Victor Vito, Kevin Gourdon, Pierre Aguillon and Jason Eaton all grabbing tries.
Tommy Bowe went over for a consolation score for the visitors.
La Rochelle, after weathering an early storm from Ulster led by Piutau, grounded their first try within three minutes, Jérémy Sinzelle the scorer after a perilously high pass from Trimble to Lealiifano was intercepted in midfield.
Flyhalf Ryan Lamb converted, but was soon limping off after a heavy knock to be replaced by Paul Jordaan. Ulster made the most of the unexpected disruption to the La Rochelle gameplan, striking back masterfully in the ninth minute through a move started and finished by Lealiifano, assisted by a fine pull-back pass from Cave and a final one-two between the out-half and Bowe.
Sustained Ulster pressure soon saw Lealiifano add a penalty to his conversion, but into the second quarter, which very much belonged to the hosts, Alexi Bales's kick levelled the scoreboard at 10 - 10 after a Gabriel Lacroix touchdown had been ruled out by referee Nigel Owens for a forward pass.
The Frenchmen mauled their way to within inches of the line where an Ulster offside presented Bales with three more points, and as the hosts enjoyed their best phase of possession and pressure in the half, Ulster were thankful for the breathing space afforded them by a crooked line-out put-in and an early engagement at the resulting scrum.
An uncharacteristic knock-on from Piutau put Ulster under the cosh seconds from the restart, and although a fine wrap-up from McCloskey and Cave on Bales bought Ulster some time, side entry then an offside as they frantically defended their line against the behemoths of the La Rochelle pack brought the threat of a yellow card from Owens.
However, a crooked feed to the scrum from Bales immediately got Ulster out of jail - although their task became more difficult again as an injury to Lealiifano forced him off, replaced by Cooney. As Ulster had done in the first half, La Rochelle capitalised on the readjustment at half-back, with a scything run from Lacroix and quick hands from Geoffrey Doumayrou undoing the Ulster defence to allow Victor Vito through the middle for the try.
Stockdale soon followed Cooney into the fray in place of Trimble, but another misplaced pass, this time from the makeshift out-half, looked to have sealed Ulster's fate on 55 minutes, only for the TMO to confirm that Bowe's tackle had just forced Jordaan into touch as he dove over by the left-hand corner flag.
It was a mere reprieve, however, as the inevitable came on 59 minutes, Kevin Gourdon bundling over after a seemingly interminable phase of close-range mauling from the men in black and yellow.
As the strain finally took its toll Ulster collapsed just after the hour mark, letting Pierre Aguiilon dart in for the bonus-point try, then lock Jason Eaton for the fifth moments later.
A neat grubber from Piutau got Bowe in for his 29th European try with 10 minutes remaining, but as the match closed out the prospect of two more tries for a bonus point was never a realistic target, as indeed it was the hosts who looked more likely to add to their account.
Ulster return to Pro14 duty next, with interprovincial rivals Leinster the visitors to the Kingpsan Stadium on Saturday 28 October.
For La Rochelle:
Tries: Sinzelle, Vito, Gourdon, Aguillon, Eaton
Cons: Lamb, Bales, 2, Goillot 2
Pens: Bales 2
Tries: Lealiifano, Bowe
Cons: Lealiifano, Cooney
La Rochelle: 15 Vincent Rattez, 14 Gabriel Lacroix, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Pierre Aguillon, 11 Jérémy Sinzelle, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Alexi Bales, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Botia Veivuke, 5 Jone Qovu Nailiko, 4 Jason Eaton, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Hikairo Forbes, 1 Dany Priso.
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Mike Corbel, 18 Vincent Pelo, 19 William Demotte, 20 Romain Sazy, 21 Jean-Victor Goillot, 22 Paul Jordaan, 23 Elliot Roudil.
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Sean Reidy, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson (captain), 5 Alan O'Connor, 4 Kieran Treadwell, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Matty Rea, 21 John Cooney, 22 Luke Marshall, 23 Jacob Stockdale.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Simon Rees (Wales), Jon Hardy (Wales)
TMO: Sean Brickell (Wales)