Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes says his players are eager to take on Pool One leaders La Rochelle in the Champions Cup at Kingspan on Saturday, spurred on by the prospect of reaching the quarter-final stages for the first time since 2014.
“There are lots of consequences to Saturday’s game against what’s a highly-motivated and quality French side, but bring it on,” said Gibbes.
“What is disappointing, really disappointing, is that we come into such an important game after just not being good enough against Leinster, we were just second-best, two metres behind everything they did to us in Dublin on Saturday,” he said, reflecting on the clear damage to morale following the 38-7 Guinness PRO14 defeat at the RDS.
“We were the second-best team on Saturday, I think that was pretty clear to everyone watching. We can’t afford that against La Rochelle, who come to Kingspan to nail down a place in the quarter-finals after surprisingly losing at Wasps in its last pool game.”
However, Gibbes rejected that the loss at the Ricoh Arena hinted at French inconsistency away from home.
“I think you’ll find that in the Top 14 last year, La Rochelle had by far the best away record in the league, so we’re not even thinking that when they come here, fully-loaded, as we expect, that they’re going to be anything less than intent on being at their best.”
Gibbes believes that in the 41-17 defeat in France in October, Ulster did many things right and brought the disciplines rehearsed in training into action.
“For 50 minutes of that game we were really in it, our structures were good and our plays went to plan,” he said. “When we then lost a little bit of form, La Rochelle capitalised in style, they took full advantage of any weakness we started to show.
“I honestly believe we’ve done a lot of work based on our good 50 minutes there, and we hope we can bring it to bear. There’s been a lot of assessment of ourselves, as players, as coaches, this week, and I have to say we’ve been pretty harsh on ourselves,” said Gibbes, who addressed comments from former Irish lock Donncha O’Callaghan that the Ulster teams of late have appeared to lack fitness.
“I don’t think that’s right. What I do know is that our staff has worked the guys really hard and they’ve given the players a lot of good quality work to do. I suppose, in some instances, you might ask if that work is being done, but no, I know the guys have a real appetite for preparation and for putting things right there out on the pitch.”
Gibbes refuses to be drawn on the identity of the overseas out-half who’ll replace Christian Leali’ifano when the Australian international’s short-term deal ends this month.
“I’ll leave that to the people looking after that end of business,” he said.
Perhaps significantly Gibbes previously captained one of the favourites to arrive at Kingspan, Stephen Donald, another former Australian international.
There is still no official comment from Ulster on when — and even if — Ireland and British and Irish Lions centre Jared Payne will return to action. He suffered severe headaches after being injured on the Lions tour of New Zealand last summer and, though he’s returned to non-contact training, he is reported to still be having recurrent problems. Director of rugby Les Kiss said last week that Payne’s welfare would always take priority and he was being managed on a day-to-day basis.
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