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La Rochelle v Ulster: We are out to weather French storm says Chris Henry

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Having experienced the Stade Marcel-Deflandre's cacophonous atmosphere during his days in Clermont, head coach Jono Gibbes has already warned his Ulster players that they'll struggle to make their voices heard come kick-off against La Rochelle tomorrow (3.15pm, UK time).

For flanker Chris Henry though, that's a bridge he's already had to cross.

The man who turned 33 on Tuesday damaged his larynx against Connacht two weeks ago, leaving Les Kiss's captain that night in something of an unfortunate predicament.

"I lost my voice straight away so it was a bit hard to communicate with the referee," he said light-heartedly but still sporting a rasp in the throat.

"When I got up, I tried to speak but nothing came out, I had to grab my throat every time I had to speak.

"I couldn't really sleep on the Friday night after the game at all, then by last Thursday or Friday I started to make big improvements.

"After getting the first scans there was far too much swelling and they didn't want to take the risk if I got another knock, but with a week's rest my voice has come back.

"It isn't very common, I think it happens a lot more in rugby league. You see a lot of their players with a raspy voice for the rest of their days but hopefully mine will recover totally and my singing voice will come back quickly."

Never mind the dulcet tones, it is his breakdown work Ulster will be thankful to have back in action tomorrow after the Malone man was forced to miss out on the win over Wasps.

Against a La Rochelle side who are to be given quick ball at the opposition's peril, Henry's doggedness on the deck will be crucial and his tete-a-tete with French international Kevin Gourdon a battle to keep an eye on.

"I'm delighted to be back," said the 24-times-capped Irish international after what was just a one game absence.

"It is always hard to miss the big ones at home but it's great to be back in the mix this week. This is what it's all about, your back is against the wall and you're playing against the best opposition.

"La Rochelle are a side that have built this up for a long time, what a journey they've had. We know they are going to be bouncing off the walls on Sunday and we need to come and try to match that the best we can.

"They have home advantage and we know what it is like to play against big French teams.

"I've never played La Rochelle but I'm guessing it'll be a similar atmosphere to Clermont.

"We have to be really focused and clear in our game plan but obviously bring the passion and ferocity that they are going to bring. If we can weather that storm and get parity in certain areas, we're confident when we get going and firing we can challenge any team."

The word confident was not one readily attached to this side last season, especially in Europe where they lost four of six, but Henry, largely unprompted, revealed that there is a different feel to the panel in the early stages of this campaign.

"The biggest thing for me is, it's been a long time since an Ulster team has been this tight.

"We are building a really good team culture. It's never going to be perfect but you know the person beside you is working hard and going to cover you if you make a mistake.

"Against Wasps sitting up there watching, it was the first game I really felt that our attack wasn't anywhere near where it's been. Our shape got lost and at times we really didn't know where we were.

"But the most pleasing thing was our defence. We were connecting more and we were more unified as a group, working really hard for each other."

When pressed on just why the spirit has improved seemingly so dramatically, the man who has been a part of plenty of different coaching regimes admits the arrival of Gibbes has certainly played it's part.

"It's taken time. It hasn't happened overnight.

"For me, the positive is that I think we have a great team morale. It's hard to bottle that. The boys are enjoying training, the craic is brilliant. The boys that don't get selected, they've really bought into it. If we train well, we prepare well, then we play well. That's why the team culture is so important.

"Jono is a massive factor in that. His detail is so good, but the thing I love is that he knows what rugby is about.

"He's getting us back to that old school of why we're playing in the first place.

"He's getting the best out of a lot of players and he'll tell you if you're not where you need to be. There's a lot of players that he's brought on in a short time and I think it's only going to get better as well."

Bradley's Verdict

A key game in this pool with both these sides having won on opening weekend, Les Kiss will no doubt be thrilled to have the experience of Rory Best to call on for a first time this season. Against a team who rarely lose at home though, using a strong bench to secure a losing bonus point would be far from the worst outcome.

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