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Ulster's European knock-out hopes hang in the balance as Wasps smash leaders La Rochelle

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Going all the way to back to when the Champions Cup draw took place in Switzerland this July, it always felt likely that if Ulster were going to haul their way back into Europe's quarter-finals then two wins against Harlequins were going to be a minimum requirement.

While the Londoners have had the look of Pool One's weakest side from the outset, after rolling up their sleeves in the Twickenham snow a week ago, there could be no slip-up back in Belfast and Les Kiss' men completed the job with a six-try success.

With more than 30 missed tackles, four fluffed line-outs, and a 76% success rate in the scrums, it wasn't always pretty but, in the end, the number that mattered most was 52.

That's how many points Ulster managed on the night, and while it still felt like the visitors scored too freely, it is worth remembering that John Cooney eclipsed their total of 24 all by himself, the scrum-half accounting for one try, five conversions and four penalties.

"We had a couple of good plays and managed to get some good yards out wide," said assistant coach Dwayne Peel of the attack.

"We got some pretty quick guys at the back, and Louis Ludik at 13, which gives us some real speed in the team and we managed to use that.

"Obviously, a couple we scored at the end got us to the six tries but I think we were more composed. If we were honest with ourselves we've been making a few line breaks but we weren't finishing things or being a bit hasty on the ball."

It's the first time Ulster have won three European games before Christmas since 2014, the season they went six from six in the pool and made their last quarter-finals appearance - and there is no doubt that a return to the last eight would be a feather in the cap for a squad that could not deliver knock-out rugby in any form last season.

While the visit of La Rochelle, and a trip to Coventry to face Wasps, will be testing in the early weeks of 2018, results over the rest of the weekend blew Pool 1 wide open.

La Rochelle had been in charge of matters having taken maximum points from the first three rounds but came unstuck against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena on Sunday afternoon.

They now lead Ulster by just two points in the pool and will be in Belfast when the competition resumes in the second week of January.

And while Sunday's result boosted Ulster's hopes of ultimately topping the pool, the Wasps victory maintained their own interest in the competition and left a three-way fight for a quarter-final spot.

It now seems likely that the province will need to take something from both remaining games against opposition set to be equally motivated.

First things first though, and there is a critical run of derby matches to whet the appetite over Christmas and the new year.

Ulster will travel to Galway to meet Connacht at the Sportsground on Saturday (7.35pm kick-off), before welcoming Munster and going to Leinster.

Part of a back-line that accounted for five of Ulster's six tries on Friday night, Louis Ludik admitted afterwards that the squad are still searching for some consistency in performance as they enter the festive period.

"One week you gel, one week you won't, it all depends," said the now Irish-qualified South African. "We're doing our best in training and hopefully, it pays off come the weekend.

"Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. When you have a couple of injuries it makes it a little bit difficult. (On Friday) it went well and hopefully, we can continue (this) week.

"It was a great team performance. We got the quick guys on the edge a bit of space, and when that happens you saw what they can do. That's something we work on, giving those quick feet a bit of space to finish tries.

"The forwards gave us a good platform to play off, we had a bit of momentum but we didn't finish a couple of times and we need to work on that. We had patches that we struggled defensively. "We'll work on that."

With injuries to Jared Payne, Luke Marshall and, most recently, Tommy Bowe, Ulster's outside centre position has been in a state of flux all season, with Ludik the latest to try his hand in the 13 jersey on Friday night, enjoying the experience of playing alongside Stuart McCloskey, the Irish international who has enjoyed a strong season to date.

"It's awesome," he said of his switch inside.

"Stu gets the front foot and hopefully, I can get a few offloads. I enjoyed myself and I'm really enjoying playing with the guys.

"We have a massively talented squad. Performances like that are always fun to be a part of, it's nights like that that you'll remember. The crowd were fantastic and wherever I get a chance, I just want to enjoy it."

With the Christmas period sure to see its usual heavy rotation, resources will have to be heavily managed, but, as Ludik points out, these are still games that will have an influence on the standings.

"We have to take it week by week," he said. "Every week is as important as the next. We'll see where the injuries are and take it from there. It's all you can do.

"It's very tough. I've been here a couple of years now, so I know what the interpros are like.

"It doesn't matter who you're playing or where it is, those games are very tough.

"There's a lot of competition between the guys for Ireland jerseys but it's always fun and always great to be a part of."

The province did not emerge from Friday's game free of injury concerns either, with Jacob Stockdale and Charles Piutau picking up knocks, while Rob Herring and Craig Gilroy also departed early.

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