Rory Best rallies Ulster to grasp La Rochelle opportunity

Ulster captain Rory Best
Ulster captain Rory Best
  • Ulster captain wants team to put themselves in strong position

Ulster must defeat La Rochelle in Belfast tomorrow if they are to realistically harbour any hopes of making the last eight of the European Champions Cup for the first time since 2014.

And captain Rory Best would like a win to end, by his standards, a remarkable barren run of not having won in an Ulster jersey since defeating Connacht in the Guinness PRO12 in December 2016.

However it is important to balance that stat with the fact that due to injuries and player welfare management he has only played in a total of 10 games since then - four of those this season.

And in terms of Europe, two weeks previous to that win over Connacht on December 23, he played in a famous Champions Cup pool win over Clermont in Belfast.

That 39-32 victory at Kingspan Stadium was also on a Saturday afternoon with Ulster putting a poor run of form behind them to claim one of those famous French club’s scalps in Europe.

Ulster’s form - up until Christmas - had not been bad. They had only suffered three defeats in all competitions, one of those away to French opponents tomorrow La Rochelle.

But poor performances in defeats at Connacht and Leinster, with a fortunate win sandwiched in between at home to Munster in the Guinness PRO14, has Ulster underdogs in their own backyard this weekend.

But in spite of the up and down form, Ulster are right in the mix in Pool One in Europe and only two points behind La Rochelle.

A win would put them top of the group and in control of the pool with an away game at Wasps to come next Sunday.

Defeat would leave them likely facing a head-to-head with Wasps to finish in second place and a bonus point win may be required to be one of the best three runners-up across the five pools.

Key to it all will ultimately how Ulster can fare at home against La Rochelle who are coming to Belfast to secure their place in the last eight - and in their first season of competing in the Champions Cup.

The challenge facing Best and his side is a significant one.

When Ulster and La Rochelle met in Round 2, the 80 minutes ended with Ulster on the receiving end of their heaviest defeat in Europe since the 2014/15 season.

Three quick-fire tries saw the French side pull away from Ulster, who had been toe to toe with them up to around the 50 minutes mark.

La Rochelle have also scored 127 points in their four Champions Cup matches and boast the best goal-kicking success rate of any side in the competition this season - 92 per cent.

They may have lost to Wasps in the previous round - but the team they will send to Belfast will be at full strength and not the watered down version last month.

Given the poor performance from Ulster last week, it will be a big ask to bounce back, but skipper Best believes the side can turn it around.

Best said: “ (Last) Saturday is hard to put into words as to how frustrating it was and how it was heart-breaking to lose.

“We’ve lost at the RDS before and it is a really tough place to go but I think the manner of the defeat was really hard to take.

“We can’t just forget about it. It did happen and we need to learn something from it.

“But there’s no point having a reaction to it in training during this week, it’s ultimately about Saturday and we’ll not be judged on how we played today, we’ll be judged on how we play on Saturday.

He added: “We’ve got to take a little bit of that feeling from the changing room after the game and try to channel that into a performance this weekend.

“The flip side of it is that we feel as players that there is a lot of stuff we did there that we can do a lot better.

“That will have a massive impact on the way we play in terms of the individual errors and mistakes and also it’s a new competition and it’s a competition we’re doing pretty well in.

“We’re in a strong position if we seize the opportunity.”

Best had missed the past five matches with a foot injury and it must have been frustrating for him to watch Ulster playing with such inconsistency recently?

He said: “I think the frustrating thing is that you want to come in as one of the Ireland internationals and as the captain and you want to feel that you make a difference, you want to feel that you lift the place.

“That was very frustrating for me to come in and for us to produce probably at times some of our worst rugby.

“It is very, very annoying because you feel that you need to add things.

“It’s incredibly frustrating from my own point of view that you just have wanted to help and move the thing forward and it just didn’t happen on Saturday.”

Facing La Rochelle and looking for an upturn in form may not looking in be an ideal scenario, but Best agrees that this is also the sort of game that with the right sort of result would put a different slant on the season.

“Yes, it does,” said Best “And that is what we’re focusing on now. We’re forgetting about the PRO14 but we’re not forgetting about the game last Saturday and we need to use that going in.

“With this competition put ourselves in a strong position and it’s up to us now that we make sure we take a step forward.

“While our season as a whole isn’t in the balance on Saturday, our European season is at crunch time now.

“Round five or six everyone is jostling for position and this is when you take a big step forward and this is our last home game.”

He went on: “So you lose this and you’re really on the back foot and you’re asking yourselves to go to Wasps and get a result and hope that other things go your way.

“We’ve been in that position before where we’ve lost out with teams scoring in last minutes and other teams you’re not expecting to win, winning.

“It’s not where you want to be and you keep your destiny in your control as much as you can.

“This is a new competition for us and a competition that we are in a good position in through good performances along the way and we need to carry that on now.

La Rochelle have not won in their last four away games, so if Ulster were to hit them early it could just sow the seeds of doubt.

Best said: “They’ll look at this as fresh for them as well.

“I know they lost away to Wasps but they’ll look at this as a great opportunity to rectify that and essentially qualify and they’ve Harlequins at home and they’re formidable at home.

“But for us it’s about making sure that we dictate things and we don’t wait and see how much they off-load or get their big carriers into the game.

“We’ve got to go in and test where they are. We’ve got to shock them with how tough it’s going to be to come to Belfast and win.”

Best does now dwell too much on the stats about not winning in an Ulster shirt for a while, but he obviously wants to taste that winning feeling after a match again.

“It’s been a fairly horrific run for me but I suppose I haven’t played that many games,” said Best.

“But at the same time it’s nice to come in and you probably forget what that feeling is like when you walk into that changing room and everyone is absolutely shattered because they’ve given everything they have to produce one of those special performances.

“For a good few minutes after the final whistle nobody is really fit to speak and I can recall a lot of them over my career where people are just so shattered and given everything yet they have shared that together.

“And that’s where we need to get back to, it’s a feeling we need to get.

“Ultimately that’s why you play, you don’t play to run up and down hills, you play it for that moment when it’s over and you’ve nothing left to give but you look around and see another 22 players who’ve done the same,” he added.