Ulster return empty handed after being blown away by La Rochelle
La Rochelle 41 Ulster 17
It was another fruitless trip to France for Ulster yesterday as a second-half onslaught from La Rochelle saw the Stade Marcel Deflandre's first ever Champions Cup contest end firmly in the hosts favour.
Against the hugely impressive outfit from France's Atlantic coast, Ulster trailed by only three at half-time but, having shipped just one score in the first 40, four more would follow in the second-half, including a dizzying spell of three in seven minutes.
The 5-0 distribution of match-points sees Les Kiss's men cut adrift of yesterday's hosts in Pool 1, and now needing a strong return from their final four games.
Despite spells of committed defending, they were to put themselves under pressure too often yesterday, failing to hold onto the ball for any length of time in the second-half on a day when La Rochelle signalled their intent after just three minutes.
Establishing a new Ulster cap record - his mark of 222 breaking a tie with Roger Wilson - it was a start to forget for Andrew Trimble.
The winger's pass flew off line for the onrushing Stuart McCloskey and, although the try was likely once La Rochelle pounced on the loose ball, his missed tackle on Ryan Lamb made it all the easier for the hosts to send Jérémy SInzelle across the whitewash and behind the posts.
Matters looked set to worsen soon after, only for Chris Henry to force a penalty when La Rochelle's ball carriers were making inroads into the visitor's '22'.
Having appeared to be rocking on their heels just moments before, Ulster grabbed a foothold and took the lead with a burst of 10 points in just four minutes, starting with a first try in Ulster colours for Christian Leali'ifano.
The score came after Paul Marshall pinned La Rochelle back with a probing grubber and there was little distance on Vincent Rattez's touchfinder.
Having scored from a line-out move against Wasps a week ago, it was time for another set play drawn up on the fields of Pirrie Park.
Quick ball off the top allowed for an excellent interchange between Darren Cave and Leali'fano, to set Bowe haring up the touchline, the winger's return pass seeing his number ten canter over the line. The Australian converted his own score for good measure.
A spell of Ulster pressure followed and, having originally turned down a shot at the posts, after a few rumbles from Stuart McCloksey and Rob Herring yielded no more than a La Rochelle offside, Leali'ifano took the chance to extend both his and Ulster's tally to ten points.
In a breathless first quarter, the Top 14 outfit thought they had retaken the lead through wing LaCroix, only for Nigel Owens to call play back for a forward pass.
With the sheer, unbridled physicality of Botia and Priso among others dragging their side into the ascendancy, the boisterous home crowd had to settle instead for a penalty and parity.
With Ryan Lamb departing early with an injury, the kicking tee was handed to Alexi Bales, the scrum-half repeating the trick five minutes later.
An error at the restart - the ball failing to travel to ten metres, and a scrum penalty had Ulster immediately on the back foot agai n, but a crooked line-out throw was a sizeable let off as half-time approached.
Ulster were effective in driving La Rochelle back with kicks in behind but, with Sinzelle becoming increasingly prominent, there felt an ever present threat when they were on the ball.
While Paul Marshall almost opened things up when La Rochelle cheated to the blindside expecting the pass, he just couldn't get his offload away to release his support runner. Dangerous off broken play, the French side came back once more, but when the ball went loose as the clock past 40 minutes, Ulster opted to kick dead and regroup just three points adrift.
When play restarted under a darkening sky, it was Patrice Collazo's men again making the early inroads, a textbook choke tackle from McCloskey forcing a turnover when La Rochelle moved wide before getting the numbers in place.
A spirited spell camped on their own line followed when Ulster couldn't find their touch but, with penalties accumulating at rate of knots, skipper Iain Henderson was warned to keep his side's discipline in check.
A free kick to Ulster on La Rochelle's put in though, at least moved Kiss's men beyond the shadow of their own posts but it was only a temporary reprieve.
With ropey kicking seeing the ball come back for too quickly, winger LaCroix recognised a mismatch in the Ulster midfield and slipped between props Wiehahn Herbst and Callum Black.
Slick offloads from LaCroix, then Geoffrey Doumayrou, freed All Black Victor Vito to sprint for the line, the dot down under the posts leaving the conversion a formality.
Having been the scorer, Vito almost turned provided, his sensational one-handed grab of Pierre Aguillon's pass and release to Paul Jordaan providing a moment of magic only for Bowe to save the try with a tackle into touch.
Again though, a lack of an effective exit would prove Ulster's undoing, La Rochelle able to keep it tight for flanker Kevin Gourdan to crash over and grasp control of proceedings.
If that score seemed like it sealed the game, two more in the next four minutes would end any hope of an Ulster renaissance.
Aguillon's well worked try would bring La Rochelle their deserved second successive bonus point, and give the score a decidedly lop-sided complexion, before captain and former All Black Jason Eaton added an exclamation point when he went over for a fifth only moments later.
There was still time for Bowe to bring Ulster some belated cheer, a fine move for what it was worth that saw Piutau beat his man well before sending through a grubber that bounced up for the Monaghan man.
For Ulster though, it was far too little and, indeed, far too late.
With La Rochelle now firmly in charge of this pool, Ulster are seemingly playing for a runners up spot and will need to be better on their travels when Europe resumes in December with a trip to Harlequins.
In this month of huge fixtures though, focus must immediately switch back to domestic matters with Saturday's visit from interpro rivals, and fellow Conference B side, Leinster.
La Rochelle: V Rattez; G LaCroix, G Doumayrou, P Aguillon, J Sinzelle; R Lamb, A Bales; D Priso, H Forbes, U Atonio; J Eaton, J Qovu, L Botia, K Gourdon, V Vito.
Replacements: P Bourgarit (for Forbes, 64), M Corbel (for Priso, 52), V Pelo (for Atonio, 61), W Demotte (for Qovu, 67), R Sazy (for Eaton, 67), JV Goillot (for Bales, 61), P Jordaan (for Lamb, 9), E Roudil (for Sinzelle, 67)
Ulster: C Piutau; A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, T Bowe; C Leali'ifano, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst; K Treadwell, A O'Connor; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
Replacements: R Best (for Herring, 61), A Warwick (for Black, 70), R Ah You (for Herbst, 52), R Diack (for O'Connor, 56), M Rea (for Reidy, 68), J Cooney (for Leali'ifano, 47), L Marshall (for Cave, 65), J Stockdale (for Trimble, 52)
Ref: Nigel Owens (Wales) MOTM: V Vito