Vermeulen's Ulster fight back but fall short against Stade Rochelais
MATCH REPORT: Ulster suffered their second successive Champions Cup Pool B loss on Saturday when they were edged out 29-36 by defending champions Stade Rochelais in a seven-try thriller at the Aviva Stadium.
Ulster, who were whitewashed 0-39 at Sale Sharks last weekend, earned two bonus points thanks to a storming second-half comeback, which brought them all of their 29 points after they had gone in at half-time 0-29 down.
Flyhalf Antoine Hastoy was the holders’ star with 26 points via a try, three conversions and five penalties. Brice Dulin and Pierre Bourgarit also touched down for La Rochelle.
As for Ulster, Iain Henderson, John Cooney, Duane Vermeulen and Tom Stewart all scored tries in the second half, with Cooney converting three and kicking a crucial penalty with the clock in the red.
After the tie had been switched to Dublin due to an unfit Kingspan Stadium pitch in Belfast, the tone of the first half was set early on, with La Rochelle happy to go for the posts to punish Ulster’s lack of discipline whenever a penalty was in kicking distance.
By the 24th minute the French side were 12-0 up, with Hastoy kicking four penalties, and then with Ulster captain Henderson in the sin bin, they notched the first try of the game when Hastoy kicked the ball through the Ulster defence to set up Dulin.
Hastoy added another penalty in the 38th minute and a minute later chipped the Ulster defence and touched down when John Cooney couldn’t get the ball under control. Hastoy improved his own try to leave the visitors coasting at the break.
The second half was a different story from the start, with Henderson finishing a good move from a tap-and-go five metres from the La Rochelle line and Cooney converting to put Ulster on the board.
However, the French side responded on 52 minutes, with a messy La Rochelle lineout ending with Bourgarit emerging with the ball and crossing for a try that Hastoy improved.
Ulster hit back, though, in the 59th minute, when scrumhalf Cooney finished and converted another well-worked try after the home team went through the phases.
La Rochelle centre Jonathan Danty was yellow-carded in the process and Ulster No.8 Vermeulen capitalised, sprinting down the wing to reach a crosskick and dot it down.
Hooker Stewart then notched the vital fourth try for Ulster to secure their first bonus point in the 74th minute, before Cooney kicked a penalty in the dying seconds to snatch a second bons point.
Ulster’s next Champions Cup game will see them travel to France for the reverse fixture against La Rochelle on January 14.
Tries: Henderson, Cooney, Vermeulen, Stewart
Cons: Cooney 3
For Stade Rochelais:
Tries: Hastoy, Dulin, Bourgarit
Cons: Hastoy 3
Pens: Hastoy 4
Ulster: 15 Michael Lowry, 14 Ethan McIlroy, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Rob Lyttle, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Iain Henderson (captain), 5 Sam Carter, 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Marty Moore, 2 Tom Stewart, 1 Rory Sutherland.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Gareth Milasinovich, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Dave McCann, 21 Nathan Doak, 22 Stewart Moore, 23 Ben Moxham.
Stade Rochelais: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 UJ Seuteni, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Pierre Boudehent, 10 Antoine Hastoy, 9 Tawera Kerr Barlow, 8 Grégory Alldritt (captain), 7 Yoan Tanga, 6 Remi Bourdeau, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Romain Sazy, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 1 Reda Wardi.
Replacements: 16 Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes, 17 Thierry Paiva, 18 Joel Sclavi, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Paul Boudehent, 21 Thomas Berjon, 22 Levani Botia, 23 Raymond Rhule.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: George Selwood (England), John Meredith (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)