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A strong Ulster defence limited the visitors, who are currently second in the Top 14 table, to a single try, while scores from man-of-the-match Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney were indicative of a much more clinical attacking performance from Les Kiss' men.

While the Ulstermen failed to secure a try-scoring bonus point and allowed La Rochelle to take home a losing one, the hard-earned 20-13 win put the province one point ahead on 17 points. A bonus point win at the Ricoh Arena next Sunday would guarantee Ulster progress to the quarter-finals as pool winners. Anything less than five points would leave qualification dependent on how the Rochelais fare against Harlequins, and indeed on other results also.

Five changes to the Ulster team that started last weekend's heavy defeat to Leinster included three to the back-line, where winger Craig Gilroy, centre Louis Ludik and scrum half John Cooney all returned to starting berths in place of Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Jonny Stewart respectively.

Full-back Charles Piutau, centre Stuart McCloskey, winger Stockdale and out-half Christian Lealiifano, in his final Kingspan Stadium appearance before rejoining the Brumbies in Australia, completed the backs division.

Up front, two switches brought in Alan O'Connor for Peter Browne at lock and Timoney for Jean Deysel at number 8, with a front row of Callum Black, captain Best and Rodney Ah You, Iain Henderson teaming up with O'Connor in the second row, and Matthew Rea and Sean Reidy completed the back row.

There was little in the way of French flair about La Rochelle's start to the game, their huge forwards trundling their way along the Ulster 10-metre line to little effect, and it came as no surprise when scrum half Alexi Bales elected to go for the posts with a close range penalty after eight minutes.

Lealiifano was asked not to go for the posts with a kick of his own moments later, but his failure to find touch handed the initiative back to the Rochelais, who soon doubled their lead courtesy of another successful place-kick from Bales.

The Ulster backs got into the game on the cusp of the second quarter, the in-form Gilroy in particular making some good ground before La Rochelle replacement back Paul Jordaan - recently on for Gabriel Lacroix - saw yellow for taking out Piutau in the air as the full-back claimed a kick.

Ulster then burst into life, Cooney's kick-and-chase putting the wind up the visitors before a dynamic rolling maul saw the inspirational Best touch down just short of the half hour mark. Cooney's conversion missed in the wind, but Ulster - with Cave now in the mix in place of Gilroy, the recipient of a bang to the head - continued to turn the screw, soon earning another close-in lineout.

This one, however, was fed straight to the backs, who spread play until Ah You picked up and bulldozed to the five-metre line. As Ulster recycled, Cooney's pass towards the right wing missed the first two men, but Ludik did really well to scoop it towards Stockdale, who shrugged off the covering defender to sneak in at the corner for an impressive individual try.

Trailing 10-6 at half-time, the visitors stunned the Kingspan crowd into silence within three minutes of the restart, number 8 Victor Vito penetrating the Ulster defence a little too easily and supplying Bales for a simple run-in, which the scrum half converted himself.

The stands did not stay quiet for long, however, as Cave latched onto a loose ball in the French side's 22 and found Timoney for a very well-taken try by the posts. Cooney converted and added a penalty soon after to give Ulster a 20-13 cushion with half an hour remaining.

The hosts held on that seven-point advantage well into the final quarter thanks to some dogged defending at successive close range scrums. The storm weathered, Ulster pushed on in search of the bonus point - and might have snatched it on 66 minutes but for an unfortunate knock-on from the hugely influential Henderson mere metres from the line.

An intelligent high kick from Cooney then put Botia Veivuke under pressure by his own corner flag, the flanker knocking on into touch. Although the Ulster possession from the lineout came to nothing, the clock had wound down sufficiently to ensure that when the Rochelais eventually seized back the ball, their next error - a knock-on in the maul - signalled the end of another absorbing Champions Cup tie in Belfast.

Ulster director of rugby Kiss said afterwards: "The boys turned up in a real vicious mood, similar to Harlequins (away) and we did that (a similar performance) again. If our attitude was going to show through, it was going to show through in that area (where we won 19 turnovers).

"There were a lot of very important moments in the game but I think that was critical for us (holding them out near our line on the hour mark). We didn't want to go to scrums that often and we had that sequence of scrums in that area and it wasn't ideal, but we just held strong enough and I think that was critical and the turning point.

"Then we got down the other end of the pitch and most of the rest of the game was spent in that area. We just couldn't get that extra try, but in this type of competition, as the Munster sides of old would have told you, you just have to get what you get out of it. It would have been nice to deny them that point, but we're still top of the pool."

Victorious skipper Best commented: "We will see how we can back it up, we need to make sure again, we enjoy the win, but then Monday, Tuesday we get back in and get back down to earth again and make sure this is not another false dawn.

"We realise what it took to get to that point before a ball is even kicked and then what it took over that 80 minutes to get us the win. That is ultimately what we will see. If we can reproduce better again and we can set our benchmark, it will be a turning point for us.

"But if we allow complacency to come in and we cut a few corners and we produce something that is not somewhere near our best, then it will just be frustrating, and there will be a little bit of all for nothing. I think we have to connect the dots...what we did during the training week equals what you do at the weekend and how you prepare.

"If you make mistakes in training continually, they are going to manifest themselves in games. That is the big challenge for us. We will see where we are in eight days' time...for me, to win away from home against some of the top sides you are going to have to improve again."
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