Match summary – Stade Rochelais 39-21 Bath Rugby
A spirited second-half fightback wasn’t enough for Bath Rugby as they suffered a 39-21 loss to Stade Rochelais in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Pierre Popelin’s two penalties were added to by tries from Jonathan Danty and Rémi Picquette as Ronan O’Gara’s team took a 20-0 scoreline into half-time.
Lock Picquette grabbed a second early in the second half and Dillyn Leyds secured the bonus-point try.
Bath rallied and scored three tries in quick succession. Johannes Jonker and Joe Simpson scored their first tries for the club and Ruaridh McConnochie sprinted up the touchline to add his name to the scoresheet.
The visitors put every ounce of effort in in an attempt to earn a fourth, and a bonus point as a result, but met a La Rochelle XV determined to remain 18 points ahead.
After eight months rehabilitating a ruptured ACL, Cameron Redpath made his long-awaited return for Bath Rugby lining up at fly-half with five other potential 10s missing due to injury.
There were a further four changes in the backline as Ben Spencer, Will Muir, Ruaridh McConnochie and Max Clark all started, while props Juan Schoeman and D’Arcy Rae were selected alongside European debutant Tom Doughty in the front row.
La Rochelle made seven changes to their starting XV from their narrow Top 14 defeat to Castres a fortnight ago.
French international trio Brice Dulin, Jonathan Danty and Dany Priso were all reinstated while Pierrw Popelin, Romain Sazy Rémi Picquette and Paul Boudehent were recalled.
Stade Rochelais: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jérémy Sinzelle, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Pierre Popelin, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barow; 1 Dany Priso, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 3 Uini Atonio, 4 Romain Sazy, 5 Rémi Picquette, 6 Paul Boudehent, 7 Rémi Bourdeau, 8 Greg Alldritt ©
Replacements: 16 Facundo Bosch, 17 Léo Aouf, 18 Guram Papidze, 19 Thomas Lavault, 20 Mathieu Tanguy, 21 Jules Le Bail, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Pierre Boudehent
Bath Rugby: 15 Ruaridh McConnochie, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Max Clark, 11 Will Muir, 10 Cameron Redpath, 9 Ben Spencer; 1 Juan Schoeman, 2 Tom Doughty, 3 D’Arcy Rae, 4 Josh McNally, 5 Charlie Ewels ©, 6 Tom Ellis, 7 Ewan Richards, 8 Josh Bayliss
Replacements: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Valery Morozov, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Will Spencer, 20 Mike Williams, 21 Joe Simpson, 22 Will Butt, 23 Gabriel Hamer-Webb
Tom Prydie took the kick-off surrounded by a western French fog and despite a pressing home contingent, Bath emerged from the mist with encouragement as Max Clark and Charlie Ewels carried hard in the midfield.
The visitors’ intent forced La Rochelle into a state of early ill-discipline, first at the scrum and then at the breakdown. But Ben Spencer couldn’t quite take advantage as his penalty shot drifted just wide of the posts.
When the hosts got their hands on the ball shortly after, they too caused their opponents to infringe and fly-half Popelin edged them into a 6-0 lead with two strikes from a similar difference.
On his return, Redpath jived his way past a couple of defenders searching for a real opening and Josh McNally followed suit with a barrelling carry as Bath searched for their first clearcut opportunity in open play.
Similarly, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Gregory Alldritt found gaps to attack and though came unstuck due to resolute Bath defending metres from the line. Stade Rochelais did secure the game’s first try moments later though, exploiting an overlap on the left wing to put Danty clear.
With their tails up, the hosts added their second score, this time from close range. Picquette confirmed to have brushed the whitewash with a single movement by TMO Ben Whitehouse who was called into action again on the half-hour mark.
A powerful 25-metre surge from France Number 8 Alldritt saw him reach the line, however a superb cover tackle from Josh Bayliss and a beautifully creative slide and wrap of the ball from Ruaridh McConnochie prevented the five-pointer.
Centre-turned-fly-half Redpath dazzled thereafter with a blistering forward-rush of his own, gaining excellent field position for the Blue, Black and White. They then earned penalty after penalty close to the La Rochelle line, but eventually came unstuck as the Top 14 turned over to end the half.
Unfortunately for Bath, they were made to defend with a man less at the beginning of the second period as Tom Ellis received a yellow card and Stade Rochelais made that extra man count as Picquette sneaked into the corner for his second try.
Ten minutes later, La Rochelle secured the bonus point. Raymond Rhule made in-road from the left flank and Popelin distributed a looping pass which bounced into Leyds’ hands with the wing able to slide home.
South African Rhule was attributed with his side’s next finish. Popelin’s pinpoint cross-kick is taken by Brice Dulin and the French full-back gather his own grubber before slinging an inside pass for Rhule to run in.
Then came a five-minute period in which Bath came to life. Superb pressing from Ewels saw the England man charge down Kerr-Barlow’s box kick and from there, the forwards hammered the Stade Rochelais fringes and Jonker barged over for his first in Blue, Black and White.
A second followed on the hour. An incredible Jacques du Toit sprint up the left wing created gaps in the home backline and, on his European debut, Will Butt used tricky footwork to escape the clutches of a couple of white-shirted defenders to send Simpson in for his maiden Bath try.
Another bulldozing carry, this time from Bayliss, provided the platform for the away team’s third. Quick hands from right to left allowed the ball to reach McConnochie within seconds and he showed great speed to make it an interesting final quarter.
Buoyed by the trio of tries, Bath grew in confidence as they turned La Rochelle at scrum time deep inside their own half and Ben Spencer – moving out to fly-half – played a smart kicking game which almost released Muir following a solid aerial combination from McConnochie and Prydie.
Stuart Hooper’s men couldn’t quite gain the field position to take a try bonus back to Somerset but the squad can be buoyed by a much-improved second half ahead of a return to the Rec next weekend.