Five things we learned from Ulster's thrilling 20-13 Champions Cup victory over La Rochelle
Ulster boosted their hopes of qualification for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup on Saturday with a huge win over La Rochelle.
But, other than the 20-13 result, what else did we learn at Kingspan Stadium?
1. ULSTER ENJOY HOME COMFORTS
The Saturday afternoon curtain raiser time-slot can be a tough sell to fans, with club rugby, parenting duties and spouse time often already pencilled in for the start of the weekend. It took a while for the atmosphere to warm up, or perhaps wake up, but when it did, it was more like the Ravenhill of old. Kingspan Stadium was quite some way off a sell-out for the biggest game of the season to date, but generating that border-line hostility from the terraces has always been a key part of why French and English sides have disliked coming here on big European nights...and indeed afternoons. Ulster delivered, and the fans followed.
2. IRISH BOYS STAND UP FOR THE ULSTERMEN
Very soon, Ulster will be waving goodbye to their Irish international contingent for the better part of two months as Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale (for starters) pull on the green jersey in the Six Nations. But when Ulster needed them most on Saturday, all stood up tall. Best, somehow still doing the business at the coal face as a 35-year-old, scored his first European try since 2014, while hitting rucks in a fashion that showed his team-mates exactly how hard they would have to work for the victory. Henderson was a thorn in La Rochelle's side all afternoon, while Stockdale, after his first real speedbump of the season last week, scored Ulster's crucial second try when he had no right to do so.
3. FEW SUMS REQUIRED
There are times when a Champions Cup weekend can leave your head in a spin as you try to work out the various permutations required for a quarter-final place but Ulster have a distinct advantage in this regard. Playing in the last fixture slot next week when they take on Wasps in Coventry, they will know exactly what is needed from the game to make the last eight. At present that could be anything from a bonus-point win to top the pool, or just ensuring there isn't a 5-0 match-point spread to bank a runners-up spot. But all will be clear by the time the province kick-off against the Premiership side whose own hopes took a major dent with a shocking loss to Harlequins.
4. SCRUM PROBLEMS
If there was a fly in the ointment on Saturday, it was Ulster's scrum. The teamsheet certainly left Ulster looking underpowered in that regard and La Rochelle certainly felt able to feast on their hosts' set-piece. With three French international props in the matchday 23 - and the uncapped Danny Priso has been the most impressive of the bunch at times this season - the unit won three of Ulster's seven scrums against the head and whenever the opposing forward units packed down, a penalty always seemed a likely outcome. Escaping one prolonged second-half passage of scrums right on their own line with neither a penalty try or a yellow card was a key turning point for Ulster though.
5. KISS' FAITH IN YOUTH PAYS OFF
With all due respect to the wealth of options available to Leo Cullen at Leinster, the Levani Botia, Victor Vito, Kevin Gourdon triumvirate is arguably the best back-row Ulster will face all season. To combat this unit, Les Kiss boldly went with Mattie Rea and Nick Timoney alongside Sean Reidy. The young duo, with the sum total of two starts combined in the competition before Saturday, got the nod ahead of the likes of Jean Deysel, who did not feature, as well as Clive Ross and Pete Browne who featured in the 'A' game on Friday night. It was a selection gamble, but one that paid off.
Belfast Telegraph Digital