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Ulster endeavour undone as French unleash a storm

 

By Michael Sadlier

We wanted to believe that it was on and after watching Exeter turn Montpellier over down in the south of France that notion began to take more shape than had seemed possible.

After all, Ulster had thrown some great punches in that first half, and absorbed some punishment pretty well too, to only trail 13-10.

And they were doing what they had said all along was the essential plan. Namely to move La Rochelle around with a heady mix of aggression and creativity.

But we should have known really. Throwing the kitchen sink at La Rochelle was only going to get you so far but to beat them was going to take something extraordinary and certainly required Ulster to avoid making any basic errors.

And the sight of Andrew Trimble's ambitious pass gifting Jeremy Sinzelle his second minute try showed that Ulster were certainly going for it but suggested that their ambition would never be matched by the necessary composure or accuracy.

The very theory that Ulster's hugely experienced operators - the province's now most-capped player Trimble, Darren Cave, Paul Marshall et al - had been brought in to pull off a miracle result at Stade Marcel-Deflandre looked wobbly enough even before the hostilities began.

And then there was the insight Jono Gibbes and Aaron Dundon - both coaching in last season's French Top 14 - were going to bring to further unhinge a La Rochelle squad seemingly without weaknesses.

It was easy to buy into the idea that Ulster somehow had some secret ordinance which Victor Vito and his team-mates just wouldn't be expecting.

Yet credit has to be given to just how Ulster put it up to the French in that opening half. After all, the French scrum was supposed to annihilate the visiting eight which never really happened.

And then there was Christian Leali'ifano and Charles Piutau with the former's try a thing of some beauty and the latter's first half incursions putting the home team in all sorts of stressful situations.

Nigel Owens played his part too in pinging the home side for a crooked feed and there was a genuine sense - for a while - that La Rochelle were getting frustrated as their error count rose.

But Ulster knew that keeping their hosts at bay was never really going to last and basically, as the French side turned up the heat in the second half, the visitors were well and truly scorched.

It didn't help that Piutau's first touch of that half saw him inexplicably drop the ball and one of the last sightings of Ulster in full resistance mode came soon after when Cave and the hard-running Stuart McCloskey - who was Ulster's top carrier - wrapped up Geoffrey Doumayrou in a choke tackle to earn a turnover.

It didn't help that Leali'ifano left the action as the accuracy needed was immediately lost as new out-half John Cooney hit grass with a clearance that should have been in Row Z.

In the blink of an eye Gabriel Lacroix had skinned Callum Black - who actually topped Ulster's tackle count with 15 - and Vito was over.

At 20-10 it already looked gone and though Tommy Bowe stopped one score they now came in a torrent.

Nothing could have stopped the 28-point storm and the sight of Ulster being shoved off their own possession - basic stuff gone wrong - when Robbie Diack hit the deck led to try number five.

Bowe's try, created by a rare Piutau incursion in that half, was mere consolation prize.

We had wanted to believe, but then crushing reality had to have the final say.

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