Leinster come up heartbreakingly short as O’Gara’s La Rochelle win Champions Cup

Irish province led for all bar 12 minutes of final, but could not hold off final onslaught

Leinster 21 La Rochelle 24

Leinster’s cherished fifth star suddenly feels much further away again, for not only did they come up heartbreakingly short in a throbbing Stade Vélodrome, but the scars of this defeat will take more healing than possibly any they’ve ever endured in Europe, certainly for a very long time.

Leinster led for all bar 12 minutes of the match, but they never looked entirely comfortable. Passes didn’t always stick, their scrum had its wobbles and La Rochelle cranked up their power game to an irresistible crescendo.

Their defence was braveness personified, but with the game’s final play the La Rochelle replacement scrumhalf Arthur Retiere reached out for the line and just about made it. Even so, there was a heavy sense of inevitability about that score.

Their own hunger for a trophy intensified by coming up short in two finals last season, so it was that Ronan O’Gara had led La Rochelle to their maiden big honour in the tournament he graced for so long and won twice as a player. True to his word, La Rochelle came to play and scored all the game’s three tries, while their yellow and black army made it into a quasi home match.

O’Gara and his staff also came up with a masterful game plan to stifle Leinster’s attacking game in a way no other side has done this season, sending up shooters to play in Johnny Sexton’s face but also cutting off the edges with their line speed in the middle and on the outside. They were unwaveringly committed to the plan too.

Although it came at a cost, with a penalty count of 11-4 early in the second half enabling Sexton to keep the scoreboard ticking and Leinster it front, the gamble worked.

True to type, where initially Wayne Barnes awarded Leinster the game’s first five penalties, true to form he seemed to only have eyes for the men in blue when finishing the game with half a dozen penalties in their favour. Michael Ala’alatoa was denied one turnover penalty on the basis that he had started to contest fractionally before Ross Molony rolled away. That was a tough call.

There were immense performances on both sides, Will Skelton going the distance and Grégory Alldritt doing his warrior thing, while Thomas Berjon and Ihai West pulled the strings at halfback.

Even Josh van der Flier struggled to raise a smile when presented with the Anthony Foley trophy for player of the season by Olive Foley, and along with the likes of Ross Molony typified Leinster’s work rate, and Jamison Gibson-Park again seemed to be everywhere.

The La Rochelle fans had to make a seven-hour drive to Marseille but they sure did. Like many clubs in France, they have adopted the chant which originated in Oyannax, “Ici, ici, c’est La Rochelle”, mixing it up with the more tuneful “Rochelais, allez, allez, allez” and “et ils sont la, les Rochelais.”

Leinster had their own of course, namely “Lein-ster, Lein-ster” but not for the first time the thought occurred that they another chant, or a song, especially against a French side in France. Mind, even if they had, it would have been drowned out.

In temperatures of 28 degrees, the pitch was shaded come kick-off but the noise levels actually increased when the PA system was, blissfully, turned off and the game began.

The initial quality of Leinster’s ruck ball and Sexton hitting Jimmy O’Brien on the edge before supporting on the inside for Jamison Gibson-Park to appear as soon as he presented the ball had La Rochelle stretched.

It helped to earn the game’s first four penalties, two of which were within Sexton’s range into a wall of yellow and black, and a cacophony of booing for a 6-0 lead. The last was against Skelton after he put in a big hit on Molony and sought to induce some afters. Barnes warned Skelton to calm down or he’d be doing so for 10 minutes on the sidelines.

But La Rochelle’s response was swift and dramatic. Jonathan Danty charged on to Gregory Alldritt’s feed off a lineout before they went wider to Jérémy Sinzelle, and off the recycle Thomas Berjon opted for a three-on-three on the blindside.

Dillyn Leyds stepped to Tadgh Furlong’s outside shoulder and drew in Jimmy O’Brien to offload to Raymond Rhule and he veered inside Hugo Keenan for a clinically executed try. West converted too.

The whole tenor of the game had changed, all the more so when La Rochelle ominously drove Leinster back at the game’s first scrum in the 14th minute to earn a penalty up the line and Kelleher was also replaced by Dan Sheehan.

Leinster needed the big defensive set that followed, Josh van der Flier driving Dany Priso back in the tackle and O’Brien tackling Danty into touch. Still, a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise followed.

Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose each made inroads before La Rochelle cut off the edges and Brice Dulin beat Keenan to Sexton’s grubber into the in-goal area. Sexton, the pantomime villain again, was booed for both taking on a wayward drop goal to nothing from the ensuing drop out and when having his left ankle injured.

La Rochelle were having much more joy in reaching the edges, whether it was Sinzelle’s long pass to Lleyds, Lleyds offloading to Rhule again for another line break and Leinster were grateful for Lowe’s covering,

Keenan’s last man and Gibson-Park’s work rate in defence when Dulin spilled Sinzelle’s pass with an advantage play.

When La Rochelle then opted for a five-minute scrum it looked ominous, even though the first scrum wheeled. Barnes had his arm out for a scrum penalty to La Rochelle but was prompted to change his mind when the blindside assistant Christophe Ridley adjudged Priso had whipped and brought down the scrum. It looked an absolutely correct call.

Instead, Sheehan and Gibson-Park reloaded blind off a lineout to release O’Brien for a chip and chase, Dulin missing his chance to clear before Gibson-Park tackled behind the gain line. This led to another close-range penalty for offside.

Somehow, Sexton’s fourth penalty had Leinster 12-7 ahead at the break.

Nonetheless, Skelton’s strength over the ball enabled West to immediately trim that lead to two points.

Leinster’s left flank having been cut off again, a well-weighted chip by O’Brien earned an attacking lineout, and Leinster went into overdrive after Henshaw trucked it up, Gibson-Park, Sheehan and Jack Conan rumbling to within inches of the line. Another Sexton three-pointer again felt a little short-changed for Leinster.

Even so, Leinster were beginning to find their passing rhythm. Dulin couldn’t deal with a Sexton bomb, Henshaw stepped Sinzelle and Lowe’s skip pass hit Sheehan on the touchline for another offside penalty, against Wiaan Liebenberg, enabled Sexton to make it 18-10.

La Rochelle responded by launching their heavy artillery through the phases but Uini Atonio ran into West’s pass when taking the wrong line.

However, O’Brien unintentionally nudged a kick behind over tough in-goal before Sexton and Keenan couldn’t clear under pressure from Dulin’s drop goal attempt and Gibson-Park was pinged for going off his feet.

When La Rochelle went to the corner and Pierre Bourgarit hit Matthias Haddad before being driven over the Vélodrome volume rose to a new level, all the more so when West’s conversion made it a one-point game.

With Sexton now off, Leinster were then indebted to the TMO Tom Foley and La Rochelle lock Thomas Lavault when the former spotted the latter had needlessly tripped Gibson-Park as he chased his own kick. He was binned and Ross Byrne made it 21-17.

Even so, La Rochelle upped their intensity again, and had two lineout drives held up before opting for three successive scrums amid a procession of six penalties in their favour by Barnes as they pounded the Leinster line.

The final two-minute siege, with another penalty advantage, Retiere’s slip actually taking him under Ringrose before reaching out for the line. To a deafening din, replays confirmed as much. Leinster’s resistance worked against them, for with the clock stopped at 78.50, West used up the remaining one minute and 20 seconds to complete the conversion.

As La Rochelle players cavorted around the pitch in wild celebratory huddles, the Leinster players stared on, hands on hips, in disbelief. Yes, this really was the one that got away.

SEQUENCE: MinsScorerScore
5 minsSexton pen3-0
9 minsSexton pen6-0
10minRhule try, West con6-7
22 minsSexton pen9-7
40 (+3 mins)Sexton pen12-7
42 minsWest pen12-10
48 minsSexton pen15-10
58 minsSexton pen18-10
61 minsBourgarit try, West con18-17
65 minsByrne pen21-17
79 minsRetiere try, West con21-24

Leinster: Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Dan Sheehan for Kelleher for (15 mins), Ross Byrne for Sexton (62 mins), Cian Healy for Porter, Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong (both 63 mins), Rhys Ruddock for (67 mins), Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (76 mins), Joe McCarthy for Molony (77 mins),

Not used: Ciaran Frawley.

Stade Rochelais: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Jérémy Sinzelle, Jonathan Danty, Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Thomas Berjon; Dany Priso, Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio, Thomas Lavault, Will Skelton, Wiaan Liebenberg, Matthias Haddad, Grégory Alldritt (capt).

Replacements: Remi Bourdeau (30-38 mins), Reda Wardi for Priso (55 mins), Joel Sclavi for Atonio (62 mins), Facundo Bosch for Bourgarit, Arthur Retiere for Berjon (66 mins), Jules Favre for Lleyds (67 mins), Levani Botia for Danty (69 mins), Romain Sazy for Lavault (75 mins).

Sinbinned: Lavault (65-75 mins).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times