FOR a team in a rut, a trip to face the defending European champions is perhaps the last place they want to be but that is the case for Ulster who are in La Rochelle on Saturday (5.30pm, live on BT Sport 3).
The French outfit fended off an Ulster revival in the corresponding fixture before Christmas, taking a 36-29 win having been 29-0 up at the half at an empty Aviva Stadium, a result that left any prospect of the Irish province advancing into the knockout stage of the European Champions Cup hanging by a thread.
It is now more realistic that European knockout rugby will come in the Challenge Cup, but that is also not certain as results will be needed over the next couple of weeks.
Yet there is a sense that just getting a big result to turn the corner is the main motivation heading to the south of France this week.
Many of those recent defeats, including last week at Benetton, have been by one score or less, so the challenge is to find a way to turn that round.
“We understand the issue now for us is focus on the small things, and the key team details looking at where can we get better,” said Head Coach Dan McFarland.
“We were a whisker's hair away from winning our last three games. If we work hard, we will turn the corner, start playing better, and we will win games. I have no worries about that but the issue is when there’s a bit of momentum with that.
“It’s a pleasure to come in on a Monday with the work and the attitude being shown. We can’t get too high when we are up and we can’t get too low when we are down.”
Your Ulster team to take on @staderochelais at Stade Marcel Deflandre tomorrow evening 👊 🇫🇷— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) January 13, 2023
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While there has been pressure to get a result in recent weeks, perhaps this time around that is not the case as Stade Rochelais, who lead the way in Pool B and look as dangerous as ever, are the hottest of favourites this week.
As European champions, their quality speaks for itself, yet the challenge is one to relish for Ulster who will be without the injured Rob Baloucoune (hamstring) and Sean Reffell (ankle) this week.
“They offer so many threats throughout their team,” McFarland accepts.
“They are up in the top three teams in Europe, last time we played them at the Aviva Stadium they gave us lots of problems. They are big team, in terms of size and have lots of talented players. The guys selected for the weekend will relish it and it’s a great opportunity for us to go up against the best.”
Following several months out with injury, Ian Madigan is back and will line-out at fly half alongside 21-year-old scrum half Nathan Doak, who made his Heineken Champions Cup debut this time last year in an away win over another French heavyweight, ASM Clermont Auvergne.
In a back three with an average age of 25, winger Jacob Stockdale retains his starting position from last week, together with full back, Mike Lowry, who secured his first try of the season last Saturday against Benetton. Rob Lyttle comes in on the right wing, as one of eight changes to the side that started most recently in Round 12 of the BKT United Rugby Championship.
Luke Marshall comes into the team at inside centre and is paired in midfield with fellow Ulster Rugby Academy graduate Stewart Moore, who crossed the whitewash in Treviso.
Club captain, Iain Henderson, will lead the side from the back row as he is named at blindside flanker. He is joined by Ireland teammate, Nick Timoney, and Springbok, Duane Vermeulen, who lines out at number eight.
Ulster stalwart, Alan O’Connor, is back in the starting line-up this week at lock, and pairs up with Kieran Treadwell, who has amassed over 1,800 minutes of European rugby since his debut back in the 2015/16 season.
Scottish international, Rory Sutherland comes in as loosehead prop, with Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Rob Herring, who was responsible for one of Ulster’s four tries last time out, both retaining their starting positions at tighthead prop and hooker respectively.