Belfast Telegraph

Strength and pace of Collazo's men force to be reckoned with

 

By Michael Sadlier

They announced themselves in the Champions Cup in a fairly unforgettable manner and La Rochelle are now on everyone's radar in this their debut season in Europe's top tier.

By taking their leave of London with a bonus point triumph from Harlequins, the club from France's western seaboard laid down a marker of how far they have progressed in a short time in only their fourth season in the elite Top 14 domestic league.

But the club also demonstrated a way of playing that is a heady combination of huge power with deadly pace and ambition.

It was all on display at the Stoop, with centre Geoffrey Doumayrou scoring two superb tries.

Though it doesn't always work, their stats from this season show La Rochelle to have made the most carries per game with more line breaks and off-loads than their Top 14 rivals.

They also tend not to kick the ball that often either. Not quite what we have come to expect from French clubs but, then, La Rochelle are slightly different.

Not for them are multi-millionaire owners who bankroll clubs and pay top price for big name imports.

This club is interested in building sound foundations, both on and off the pitch, and utilising its sense of togetherness and community to make progress.

So far, it's working well and they finished first in last season's Top 14 table to lose out narrowly in the semi-finals which in no way suggests that this was just a one-off achievement.

And Stade Marcel-Deflandre is clearly an intimidating citadel which very few get to storm and Ulster will get an extra special welcome brimming with hostility for La Rochelle's first Champions Cup home tie.

Ex-All Black and club skipper Jason Eaton describes it as a "bit of a fortress" when referencing the consistent sell-out crowds.

Their bulk up front for tomorrow is, as expected, huge thanks to the presence of their 21-stoners in prop Uini Atonio and lock Jone Qovu Nailiko, while the bench is also extremely hefty.

There is pace and guile too in former All Black Victor Vito at number eight and flanker Kevin Gourdon.

And with Doumayrou ready to attack and out-half Ryan Lamb directing operations Patrice Collazo's men will also use width as well. La Rochelle look primed to make another attention-grabbing statement in Europe.

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