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Ulster can silence the racket on La Rochelle's historic day, says Gibbes

 

By Jonathan Bradley

The Stade Marcel-Deflandre may be preparing for its first ever Champions Cup contest this Sunday, but Ulster's travelling party will already be wholly aware of the experience that awaits them in La Rochelle.

The two sides who kicked off Pool 1 with victories last weekend meet where the hosts have lost only once in well over a year but, despite this being Ulster's first visit, there is plenty of experience to fall back on.

Scrum coach Aaron Dundon was there last year with Grenoble, so too team manager Nigel Brady during his Aurillac days.

Indeed, it was Jono Gibbes' Clermont side who won the Top14 crown last May only after the upstarts from the Bay of Biscay topped the regular season standings, and Ulster's head coach has warned his players that they will hardly be able to hear themselves think on what will be a historic occasion for a club founded all the way back in 1898.

"If you can reference over 100 years of history into one game, you get an idea of the enormity of what it is for them," said the man who helped Clermont to a 30-30 draw on the Atlantic coast last season.

"It's a great stadium, it's very similar to here (Kingspan). I wouldn't say it's enormous but the stands are very close to the ground.

"They've got these tin hoardings and when the crowd smash them they make a hell of a racket. The fans are there very early during the warm-up so you'll get a feel for it. It's not hostile, they are just passionate and excited.

"I know there'll be a few of our supporters down there, but I guess they'll get the worst seats imaginable.

"They've built something pretty good and they are consistently improving over the last few years when they've moved from the Pro D2 to finishing top of the Top14. I think their supporters are used to watching winning rugby."

Leading the Top14 in metres, clean breaks and offloads, although also in turnovers, Patrice Collazo has his side playing a striking brand of rugby, fully evidenced in their bonus-point win over Harlequins last weekend when they kicked the ball just 18 times.

Their steady rise from the Pro D2 to the Champions Cup has attracted All Blacks Victor Vito, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Rene Ranger to the once unfashionable club, although the latter pair will not play this weekend, but it is that old French spirit of 'joue' that most strikes Gibbes.

"Certainly I think in my experience last year in France with Clermont, La Rochelle are individually probably one of the most skilful, X-factor teams that there is," he said.

"If you look at Toulouse, who have Maxime Medard and Gael Fickou as players who can create things, La Rochelle seem to have players in one through 15 who can do all sorts of things. Certainly the threat is pretty real."

While defensive frailties, especially against teams who put width on the play, were evident early in the season, Ulster's efforts without the ball have been to the fore in recent weeks, shipping just one try combined against Connacht and Wasps.

Against a side who managed four tries with just 37% possession last time out, though, Gibbes expects a different challenge on Sunday.

"I'm not sure I would compare them to Wasps, maybe more to Scarlets," he said. "Not in the same way that they play, but the way they have built a style of play and you can see that they are comfortable with it.

"La Rochelle have built in the course of the last 18 months a style they are pretty comfortable with.

"From the outside, they had finished first in the Top14 last year, but they were the top attack and second best defence after 26 games, so they've built on a good framework of teamwork and they are pretty comfortable with that."

While there is plenty of the rapier about La Rochelle's backs, they are not adverse to the bludgeon and possess a gigantic set of forwards.

With the tournament's media guide listing four of their pack as weighing in at over 130kg, Gibbes joked that may be something of an understatement, but did admit that the sheer size of the opposition presents a different point of emphasis for his players come the tight exchanges.

"That's the official programme weight," he chuckled, believing the real number may be somewhat higher when it comes to the huge prop Uini Atonio. "There's no way he's not 150kg.

"It absolutely is a different way of dealing with things. Rory Best has played a lot of games with Ireland against France so we've got some of his insights, and Aaron (Dundon) coached in the Top14 last year, so he understands the different way it works up against someone who can just lean 150kg on top of you.

"It's different, but we have to prepare the best we can, be a really strong team unit. It's the collective that's our best asset going down there.

"That's why you need your team-mates, you need to be as tight as you can as a team. That's all you've got down there.

"It'll be a tough old game but you have to step forward for those."

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