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VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS: LA ROCHELLE 41 ULSTER 17

With 10 first half points from Christian Lealiifano, Ulster held their own until a third quarter in which the unrelenting force of the La Rochelle pack simply wore the visitors' defence out, and four tries in 15 minutes put the outcome beyond any doubt.

Tommy Bowe's try, 10 minutes from time, offered scant consolation for the Ulstermen, who now lie third in the Pool 1 table, a point behind Wasps, who were 41-10 bonus point winners over Harlequins, and six adrift of the unbeaten French side.

Director of rugby Les Kiss prioritised experience over youth in his starting XV, particularly in a back-line whose average age totalled 30, and where two of the most notable performers of the campaign to date - Jacob Stockdale and John Cooney - made way for seasoned European veterans Bowe and Paul Marshall.



Two further changes among the backs brought Trimble in for Louis Ludik and Darren Cave replaced Luke Marshall at centre, while full-back Charles Piutau, centre Stuart McCloskey and out-half Lealiifano retained their places.

Up front, Callum Black replaced Kyle McCall at loosehead prop, lining out alongside Rob Herring and Wiehahn Herbst. Kieran Treadwell continued in the engine room, this time partnered by Alan O'Connor with captain Iain Henderson moving to the back row alongside the returning Chris Henry and number 8 Sean Reidy.

Notable entrants from the bench were Robbie Diack, only the third player in history to earn 200 caps for the province, and Ireland captain Rory Best, back in action for the first time this term after sustaining a hamstring injury in training.

La Rochelle had issued a stern warning with their impressive bonus point success at Harlequins in round 1, and after weathering an early storm from Ulster led by Piutau, they grounded their first try in the second minute, Jérémy Sinzelle the scorer after a perilously high pass from Trimble to Lealiifano was intercepted in midfield.



Their English out-half Ryan Lamb converted but was soon limping off after a heavy knock, with Paul Jordaan replacing him. Ulster made the most of the unexpected disruption to the La Rochelle game-plan, striking back masterfully in the ninth minute through a move started and finished by Lealiifano, who was assisted by a fine pull-back pass from Cave and a final one-two between the out-half and Bowe.

Sustained Ulster pressure soon saw Lealiifano add a penalty to his conversion, but into the second quarter, which very much belonged to the hosts, Alexi Bales' penalty levelled matters at 10-all after a Gabriel Lacroix try had been ruled out by referee Nigel Owens for a forward pass.



The Frenchmen mauled their way to within inches of the line where an Ulster offside presented Bales with three more points, and as the hosts enjoyed their best phase of first half possession and pressure, Ulster were thankful for the breathing space afforded them by a crooked lineout and an early engagement at the resulting scrum.

Trailing 13-10 at the turnaround, an uncharacteristic knock-on from Piutau put Ulster under the cosh just seconds after the restart, and although a fine wrap-up from McCloskey and Cave on Bales bought Ulster some time, side-entry and then an offside as they frantically defended their line against the behemoths of the La Rochelle pack brought the threat of a yellow card from Owens.



However, a crooked feed to the scrum from Bales immediately got Ulster out of jail - although their task became more difficult again as an injury to Lealiifano forced him off, with Cooney introduced in his place. As Ulster had done in the first half, La Rochelle capitalised on the readjustment at half-back, with a scything run from Lacroix and quick hands from Geoffrey Doumayrou undoing the Ulster defence to allow former All Black Bictor Vito through the middle for a 50th-minute try.

Stockdale soon followed Cooney into the fray in place of Trimble, but another misplaced pass, this time from the makeshift out-half, looked to have sealed Ulster's fate on 55 minutes, only for TMO Sean Brickell to confirm that Bowe's tackle had just forced Jordaan into touch as he dived over by the left corner flag.



It was a mere reprieve, however, as the inevitable arrived right on the hour mark, Kevin Gourdon bundling over after a seemingly interminable phase of close range mauling from the men in black and yellow.

As the strain finally took its toll Ulster collapsed as the game entered the final quarter, allowing Pierre Aguillon dart in for the bonus point try and then Kiwi captain Jason Eaton registered their fifth just moments later.



A neat grubber from Piutau got Bowe in for his 29th European try with 10 minutes remaining, but as the match closed out, the prospect of two more tries for a bonus point was never a realistic target for the province. Indeed, it was the hosts who looked more likely to add to their tally.

Bowe, who is now joint-fourth on the list of all-time top European Cup try scorers, said afterwards: "It was very frustrating, especially the second half. We had to absorb so much pressure and they were the best side we've played this season. We felt at half-time the game was there for us, but unfortunately the second half didn't go the way we wanted.

"We made a few errors and made it easy for them - and their quality shone through. Their size put us under so much pressure and they finished every chance they got. The relentless pressure they put us under meant we couldn't get our hands on the ball.

"Our strength is playing expansive rugby, but we couldn't get enough ball. When we did, we scored two tries, but we didn't give a full account of how good we can be. We didn't give a full show of what we wanted to in La Rochelle and now we have to bounce back against Leinster (in the PRO14 next week).

"We were delighted with the result against Wasps and we wanted to come away and pick up something. That's crucial in this competition. We're still confident that with Harlequins back-to-back in December we can do something in this pool."
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