It never rains but it pours, even on the west coast of France. When your hopes of reaching the Heineken Champions Cup knockouts are hanging by a thread, the last place you’d want to visit is the home of the defending champions.
That is the challenge facing Ulster on Saturday when they run out at Stade Marcel Deflandre to take on a La Rochelle side that has plenty of familiar faces both in the coaching box and on the pitch.
Even the conditions will have a homely feel for Dan McFarland’s side, with wind and rain forecast for their rematch with Les Maritimes, who were 36-29 winners when the teams met at the Aviva Stadium four weeks ago.
Ronan O’Gara’s influence does not yet extend to the weather but the former Ireland out-half has certainly helped develop a winning culture at La Rochelle.
O’Gara has made a huge impact since taking over as head coach in 2019. They reached both the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals for the first time in 2021, losing to Toulouse on each occasion. Then, in his first season as director of rugby, he led the club to their first major trophy as they stunned Leinster in last May’s Champions Cup decider.
Following a brief flirtation with England, the 45-year-old signed a contract extension with the European champions last month which will keep him at the club until 2027.
Sitting beside the Corkman in the coaching box is Tipperary’s Donnacha Ryan, who played alongside O’Gara with Munster and Ireland and was coached by him at Racing 92.
Ryan declined offers to extend his playing career and instead joined O’Gara’s backroom team as forwards coach, and last summer they were joined by Ultan Dillane, who was willing to put his Ireland ambitions on hold and try his luck in the country of his birth .
Dillane comes into La Rochelle second row for the visit of Ulster. It is his seventh start in 17 appearances since joining from Connacht, having alternated between the second row and back row, and he will have gained plenty of experience from working under Ryan and alongside world-class operators such as Will Skelton and Grégory Alldritt.
There is also an Irish link in the La Rochelle academy – Waterford-born back Ike Anagu. The 19-year-old, who moved to South Africa when he was seven, played for Ireland under-20s against Munster and Leinster development sides in recent weeks.
La Rochelle’s Irish contingent could have been even greater. O’Gara attempted to sign Jack Crowley from Munster a couple of years ago, only for the out-half to knock back his advances, but don’t be surprised if he returns to the Irish market as some players enter the final six months of their contracts.
Back-to-back wins over Northampton and Ulster in December means La Rochelle already have one foot in the Champions Cup knockout stages, and a home tie in the last-16 will come into focus with another victory against the out-of-sorts visitors .
They are also well-placed in the Top 14, sitting third, eight points behind leaders Toulouse who thumped 30-7 last weekend.
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Eddie O’Sullivan analyzes Ulster’s latest defeat against Benetton as the province’s poor form continued in Italy
Ulster’s form is the polar opposite. Last weekend’s reverse against Benetton was their fifth loss in six games and McFarland has made wholesale changes for the daunting trip to France, with Stuart McCloskey, James Hume and John Cooney all absent.
McFarland believes his side is capable of turning the corner and winning in La Rochelle, but on current form, the only Irish eyes likely to be smiling at the final whistle will be wearing black and gold.
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Watch Munster v Northampton in the Champions Cup on Saturday from 2.30pm on RTÉ2 and RTE Player with live blog on RTÉ.ie/Sport and the RTÉ News app. Listen to live commentary on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1.
Listen to live commentary of La Rochelle v Ulster in the Champions Cup on Saturday from 5.30pm on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1.