The opportunity for a shot at redemption is a rare gift in elite sport. To win the redemptive match is to cast off your past defeats and turn them into stepping stones to glory. Today, inside the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, one team will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of a past Champions Cup final defeat to claim a new star as this season’s winner.
The harsh reality of sport is that only one team will find redemption. The other will carry a second, much deeper wound of being defeated twice in a Champions Cup final. Like a lost bag of rotting prawns dropped under the back seat of your car, that smell will follow you around for years.
There is no doubt that after Leinster’s season-long dominance, La Rochelle are the underdogs. Combined with the energy-sapping 30-degree heat that is predicted for Marseille this afternoon, La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara is quite content with that situation.
O’Gara will use his leadership alchemy to channel all the negatives and convert them into a positive. He will tell his players the coaching mantra, which is old and true as the Dublin hills: “There is no pressure on us. We have nothing to lose. The weight of pressure to win sits only on Leinster’s shoulders.”
On this topic, Rog is only partly correct.
For Les Rochelais their Waterloo will rest in the amount of maniacal pressure they can muster to break Leinster at the scrum and breakdown. Since 2011, the cornerstone of La Rochelle’s scrum has been their gigantic New Zealand born tighthead prop, Uini Atonio. With the equally enormous Australian Will Skelton packing his own great bulk on Uini’s left bum cheek, their collective efforts on the tighthead side of the La Rochelle scrum can be a destructive weapon.
The response of Leinster’s loosehead, Andrew Porter, to this huge power will be pivotal to the eventual outcome. Having only recently returned to loosehead from tighthead, Porter has had a stellar season as a ball-playing prop. This week it will be his 101 front row scrummaging that will be tested in detail. He will require all of his renowned strength and the considerable force of his own lock, Ross Molony, to help ward off the dark arts of Atonio’s scrummaging.
The slim margins between defeat and victory may well be found in the milliseconds after the tackle. These are being calculated by another former Munster man in La Rochelle’s assistant coach, Donncha Ryan. He will be stressing to his team that their contest for the ball immediately after the tackle must be both ferocious and accurate.
Leinster play a high-tempo attack that requires LQB — Lightening Quick Ball — from the breakdown. It is the extraordinary pace of the Leinster ruck ball that has powered their mesmeric attack. To beat the men in blue La Rochelle will have to slow them down.
Against Racing 92, La Rochelle did just that. Alldritt, Victor Vito, and Pierre Bourgarit frustrated Les Parisiens attack with brave, technically excellent body positions over the ball.
While much of the talk around La Rochelle has focused on the fitness of Will Skelton, in reality, their main man is Gregory Alldritt. Alldritt leads the Champions Cup in carries with113. He is second in the competition with metres made — 731 — with 28 defenders beaten, 15 offloads and eight turnovers. A truly remarkable set of numbers for a single player.
Alldritt’s quality cannot be nullified, but Leinster must find a way to limit his impact on the match, especially his ball carrying from the base of the scrum.
While there is a swag full of positives for La Rochelle, there are also a number of problems with several of their key international players. Skelton is very short of match time, Tawera Kerr-Barlow has two broken bones in his hand and Vito is carrying a serious ankle injury.
Significantly their Kiwi outhalf, Ihaia West, is kicking at only 78 per cent from the tee. If West’s first shot is on target then he can have a good day. If he misses and his body language collapses then his goal kicking can become a train wreck.
Despite all the emotion surrounding Ireland’s deep and honest support for Ronan O’Gara, support that I share, the harsh reality is that La Rochelle are glaring into the abyss of two successive Champions Cup final defeats. Make no mistake, La Rochelle as an organisation, are under massive pressure. Far more than Leinster.
While O’Gara is seeking to invoke a long ago Munster like, emotional game from his players, ironically, it is the Leinster of today who resemble what Munster used be. Leinster are coached by one of their own favourite sons, with 20 players born and bred in the province. All playing for their jersey, school, junior club, family and their brother team-mates.
Added to their deep link with their community, the Leinster players are angry. They have listened in silence to all the talk of being bashed up by La Rochelle in last year’s semi-final. Within the highly competitive environment of elite rugby, that type of humiliating gossip makes part of today about revenge.
The fact that there are Munster men in charge of La Rochelle only makes it juicier for the Leinster players. The real emotional performance in today’s match may very well come from the team wearing blue.
There is also an extra dimension in play for Leinster. This is the intangible belief that sits deep in the beating heart of their club. Leinster live by the philosophy that running rugby, played with high skill and high tempo, is not only the Leinster way to play and win, it is the only way.
There will be no compromises on this philosophy today. Leinster do not want to just win, they are demanding of themselves to make a statement of winning by playing the game their way. There will be no ambushes. Leinster will be kicking the front door down and coming for La Rochelle, as they came for Leicester and Toulouse, in a full-frontal assault of high tempo, running, Leinster style rugby.
As we have heard so often in the past, Leinster want to enforce their game plan on the opposition. La Rochelle understand what is coming their way. Being able to stop it is entirely another matter.
For both teams at the Stade Velodrome the stakes are unimaginably high. For the victor, the much longed for star will be awarded to sit beside the enormous glory. For the team that is defeated, the downsides are far too great to even contemplate. At full-time the beauty and the terror of rugby will be laid bare for the world to see.
Hope and opportunity. Revenge and redemption. Elation and despair. Heartbreak and longing. The victor and the vanquished.
A fascinating battle awaits in a final worthy of this great competition.