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Neil Best: Ulster’s Clash With La Rochelle Could Be Season Defining

Sunday’s match in La Rochelle -despite being so early on -has the prospect of being season defining for Ulster. Few if any commentators will predict an Ulster victory, yet if Ulster could pull it off it would provide them with unstoppable momentum in their European Pool. Wasps will expect to take advantage of their home tie with Harlequins a few hours later and effectively end Harlequins European hopes before Quins’ double header with Ulster in December. 

It’s crucial that Les Kiss and his coaching team condition the players’ mindset and leave them in no doubt whatsoever of the importance of this game. For me Kiss too often in media interviews, talks up Ulster’s opponents rather than his own side. The talk in training and within the squad can’t be of picking up a losing bonus point or giving a good account of themselves – it must be purely about winning.

Stade Rochelais might have a formidable home record but the truth is very few away fixtures in Europe are anything less than a challenge. They had a fifty point plus win at home against Oyonnax at the end of September but went on to lose away at Toulouse before a seven-point home win over Racing 92 a couple of weeks ago.

The good news for Ulster is that because of their opponent’s style of play they will benefit from knock-ons and turnovers. Ulster will be provided with opportunities and much of the game will be shaped by what they make of those opportunities.

Ulster have yet to really hit their stride this season when everything comes together. The Ulster players will know they have a big performance just waiting to happen but getting the lineout and scrum right will be key to producing one.

I don’t expect the Ulster midfield to be as “soft” as Harlequins proved to be last week but Ulster will need the likes of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall to be at the top of their games defensively. We know in possession how destructive the Ulster centres can be and Ulster will need them to carry on from their second half attacking performances against Wasps. Both Marshall and McCloskey were instrumental in wearing down and narrowing Wasps defensively.

If I were calling the shots for Sunday’s game -tempting as it would be to go with the same team -I would make changes. If Alan O’Connor is fit I would bring him into the team and move Iain Henderson to six. O’Connor offers aggression and the backrow is still short on ball carriers.

Similarly, if Chris Henry is fully fit and available I would bring him into the starting fifteen. Not only does Henry possess hard earned experience, he’s still comfortably Ulster’s best openside.

I don’t know what the story is with Andrew Trimble beyond maybe lack of form and I am a huge fan of Louis Ludik’s commitment and consistency week in week out but I would think about switching Ludik with Tommy Bowe. Ulster are facing some big forwards with Stade Rochelais and I just think Ulster should go with their most physical backline.

On the captaincy I would leave Iain Henderson in the seat. He’s returned from the Lions a better player and last Friday -still playing himself back in -he really showed for Ulster. I suspect he will play even better this weekend.

Stade Rochelais will be looking to make history in front of their own fans with their first home match in the European Champions Cup -and I really believe it’s a great chance for Ulster to be more than a footnote to the occasion.

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history. 

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.