Ulster must seize big chance, warns Hendo
If you weren't the sort to pay any attention to fixture lists, you could still take a reasonable guess at the importance of the week's Ulster game based on who pitches up at the team's media session.
When stakes are high, it's usually reflected in the line-up and the sight, therefore, of both Rory Best and Iain Henderson loping in quick succession into the press centre at Kingspan Stadium spoke volumes about what is on the line when Les Kiss's men meet La Rochelle this afternoon in front of the Sky cameras (1.00pm kick-off).
It is not just that the team who comes out on top here will head into the final round of action top of Champions Cup Pool One, but the hosts are in dire need of a statement, something to put fans at ease and stem the flow of stinging criticism.
While Ulster remain in a relatively good position in Europe, their recent performances in three consecutive inter-pros have brought much hand-wringing, with figures such as Keith Wood, Stephen Ferris, Eddie O'Sullivan, Gordon D'Arcy and Donncha O'Callaghan all airing their disapproval in the aftermath of the most recent thumping at the hands of Leinster.
"If nobody is going to react to the three games that we've just had when all three of them weren't acceptable then..." began Henderson before, intentionally or not, stopping the thought in its tracks as abruptly as he did a charging Eben Etzebeth back in November.
"We need a proper performance. I'm not talking about winning, or scoring 50 points, I'm saying a team performance, solid in defence and attack and sealing up a lot of those leaks that we've had over the last number of weeks.
"There's no point in shying away from the fact that they have been there.
"I think that's vital for us and we need to face them and front up. There's no shying away from anything this week against La Rochelle, that's for sure."
The French side are virtually unbeatable at home, and last season were bucking the Top 14 trend of under-performing away as they topped the standings heading into the play-offs.
While still flying high, Patrice Collazo's men have not displayed the same winning habit on the road this year, and indeed have failed to win on the last four occasions they have ventured beyond the Stade Marcel Deflandre.
That run includes their Champions Cup loss to Wasps in Coventry, a one-sided reverse back in December that threw this pool wide open.
Going into today's action, Ulster are two points behind their opponents, with Wasps a further three behind.
The quarter-final picture could have a radically different look come 7.30pm this evening with Ulster away to Wasps next week.
"It's definitely the most pivotal game of the season so far," agreed Henderson.
"I think it's definitely one that holds the most pressure, I feel so far in the season. It'll be an interesting afternoon, they always are the European games against big French teams.
"It's a new competition, fighting on a different front, and it's a massive change in that aspect.
"Of course these two games are massive and going to be massively difficult. We've seen what Wasps can do too. We have to wait on the results of other games to see what's needed next week, but for us, it's all about Saturday afternoon."
Having been captain for the dismantling at the hands of Connacht, and featured in the equally humbling hammering to Leinster seven days ago, Henderson admits these are strange times at Kingspan, even with their European destiny in their own hands.
"We've been frustrated by what we've been watching from the weekend," he said.
"We have to make sure, within the whole organisation, coaches and players, that we take it more personally.
"Obviously after the Connacht game people weren't in great form, it felt like we'd taken that personally. A lot of people probably didn't enjoy their few days off over Christmas as they would have otherwise. It's the same story after the result last weekend, and even after beating Munster, the boys were really annoyed.
"You don't feel right. You don't feel good in training. You feel like you've been knocked off track a bit.
"It's back to the idea of results over performances, even though we got the bonus point win over Munster, it wasn't good enough. We know that as a forward pack. People have to understand what it really means and what they can do individually to make it better.
"We're back to square one now again. Like, with that, pressure comes from different directions and that's something we have to deal with but first and foremost is this afternoon."
Ahead of what is the biggest game of this high-pressure season, Les Kiss has made some big selection calls, especially in the back-row where he has placed his faith in youngsters Nick Timoney and Mattie Rea. Ulster's best hope is that La Rochelle lack rhythm without either of their usual tens.