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Ulster are desperate to bring belief back to Kingspan terraces: Ludik


By Jonathan Bradley

With La Rochelle in town on Saturday for a crunch Champions Cup tie (1pm kick-off), one Ulster player already knows what it's like to face the French side in a do-or-die clash, and in an odd twist of fate likely never would have made it to Kingspan Stadium without them.

Back in 2014, the Bay of Biscay outfit - now considered one of the most exciting in Europe - were just another ambitious club seeking promotion from the Pro D2. All that was standing in their way was Louis Ludik's Agen and a play-off final played in Bordeaux's Stade Chaban Delmas.

The South African scored a try that day, but his side were beaten 31-22, the defeat opening up a contract clause that allowed him to join his good friend and fellow former Shark Ruan Pienaar in Belfast.

Despite the fact that both the Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, and head coach, Mark Anscombe, he signed for were out the door before he'd even arrived, Ludik has not looked back since.

The same can be said for La Rochelle.

A steady rise, and one built on a sustainable model, has brought a huge transformation on the Atlantic coast, where the likes of former All Blacks Victor Vito, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Jason Eaton and Rene Ranger all now ply their trade.

Key figures remain from that promotion season though - Levani Botia, Uini Atonio and Kevin Gourdon chief among them - and Ludik believes you could see the foundations for their ascent being set that May afternoon some three and a half years ago.

"They had a very good side over there then (too)," he recalled. "We actually beat them earlier in the year at home, but they just came out and threw the ball around.

"Everyone just came out and got over the line easily. They had quick backs and they had big forwards back then too.

"Their backs were quick, it was very difficult to stop them."

With the once-capped French prop Patrice Collazo at the helm since 2011 - although former Toulouse and French winger Xavier Garbajosa would take control of the backs only ahead of the return to the Top 14 - not much has changed stylistically at the Stade Marcel Deflandre since then.

"They (still) counter a lot, they like to keep the ball in hand and they come from all positions," said Ludik ahead of Saturday's game that could see him come up against his former Agen team-mate Alexi Bales.

"Once they start to get going and get their bodies in line it's almost impossible to stop them, so we just have to get up to the line and smash them in their tracks.

"They have a massive side. It is hard to know who is bigger, the forwards or the backs.

"It's an amazing depth they have and that's why they are near the top of the Top 14."

Such accomplished opposition is not ideal for Ulster when facing a game so crucial to their quarter-final hopes, even if the visitors' eye-catching away form from last season has stalled after failing to win on the last four occasions they have gone on their travels.

With Ulster's three games since they were last in European action nothing short of a disaster - they followed up the back-to-back wins over Harlequins with an inter-pro series best forgotten - Ludik knows that it will take something like a Champions Cup quarter-final spot to get back in the Irish rugby fraternity's good graces.

Media, former players and fans have been more critical of the team this season than at any stage this decade.

Despite the protestations of some that they pay no heed to such volume of negative press, Ludik makes no claim that it escapes his attention, even with the lion's share of ire being aimed at the team's coaching ticket headed by Director of Rugby Les Kiss.

"It would be awesome (to be in the quarter-finals)," he said.

"Since I have been here we have not done that, so it would be a massive achievement for us and it would help a lot.

"It would put a lot of confidence in the team again from everyone, get the media and supporters all believing in the team again. It would be great to give that back.

"We just have to show passion, hard work and we have to bring it out on Saturday.

"We have to show our support how much it means to us and take a result.

"Les and the management, I think they take a lot of pressure off us. I think from the media side, they take a lot on themselves and they don't filter that through to us.

"But as players we have pride, we have pride in the jersey and we as individuals, we are professionals and we go out there and do our best, and we are disappointed when you don't play well and don't perform.

"As a player, you do that as a job and we have got pride in doing it. You want to go out and show your family and your supporters what you have got. If you don't, then we as players feel it, we feel it even more than the supporters. We take responsibility. There is a lot of stuff that we have to deal with."

First and foremost, one of the best sides in France this weekend.

Belfast Telegraph

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