Rarely has there been so much intense speculation regarding the composition of the line-ups for a European match as is the case when the teams are announced at midday on Friday in advance of the Heineken Champions Cup final at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille on Saturday (kick-off 5.45pm local time/4.45pm Irish, live on Virgin Media, Channel 4 and BT Sport).
This is primarily because there are injury clouds surrounding key plays for both Leinster and La Rochelle, namely over Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe for Leo Cullen’s side, and Victor Vito and Tawerea Kerr-Barlow for the latter, as well as the possibility of Ronan O’Gara restoring Will Skelton and/or Brice Dulin to his starting line-up.
Furlong departed in the 18th minute of Leinster’s 40-17 win over last season’s champions Toulouse a fortnight ago and was eased back into training this week before a decision would be made as to his availability. Yet Cullen has been consistently intimating that Furlong would recover in time for the final.
This final is surely a game which both he and Leinster would prioritise over any other domestic concerns this season. He is, after all, that important to Leinster, not just in his set-piece work but with his distribution skills.
Albeit in his own guarded and understated way, Cullen has also made similarly positive noises regarding Lowe after he injured his shin in the last play of the semi-final. Likewise Lowe is a huge part of Leinster’s game with his work-rate, finishing, try assists and huge left boot. Nor is there any like-for-like replacement. If either or both have to suck up a bit of pain, it won’t exactly be the first time in rugby history, especially for a European final.
On the premise that both are declared fit, then it is quite conceivable that Cullen will retain the same starting XV as was the case against Toulouse. The Leinster think tank have been given a couple of decisions regarding the make-up of their bench by the eye-catching returns of Jordan Larmour and Ryan Baird after lengthy absences in last week’s win over Munster, although it would be no surprise if the 23 remains unchanged.
The injury concerns for La Rochelle seem more complex. Kerr-Barlow estimated he would be absent for six weeks after suffering a double fracture in his hand in La Rochelle’s semi-final win over Racing 92. And true to his word O’Gara has explored the possibility of the Ballincollig-based Mycro Sportsgear could make a glove for his hugely influential scrumhalf. If not, then the 24-year-old Thomas Berjon looks set to start.
After his 15-minute cameo off the bench last week, Skelton is expected to be named in the secondrow, but it could well be that the 35-year-old Vito, who is to retire at the end of the season, will sadly be ruled out. In that scenario, the talented 21-year-old and recent French under-20 star Matthias Haddad could well start.
On a positive note for La Rochelle, it is anticipated that French fullback Brice Dulin will return from injury.
LEINSTER (possible): Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Joe McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Ciaran Frawley.
LA ROCHELLE: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Jeremy Sinzelle, Levani Botia, Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Tawera Kerr Barlow/Thomas Berjon; Danny Priso, Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio; Thomas Lavault, Will Skelton; Matthias Haddad, Wiaan Liebenberg, Grégory Alldritt.
Replacements: Facundo Bosch, Dany Priso, Arthur Joly, Romain Sazy, Remi Picquette, Arthur Retiere, Levani Botia, Pierre Aguillon.