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Gerry Thornley: La Rochelle fans an invaluable advertisement for the game

Irish supporters have earned next season’s final in the Aviva

The reverberations from Saturday’s fairly seismic final could be felt for some time to come. In the broader scheme of things it was the competition’s best showpiece since, perhaps, Leinster’s comeback win over Northampton and after the Covid disruptions of the past two seasons the tournament deserved that much.

To see the estimated crowd of 35,000 celebrate in the streets and port area of La Rochelle is an advertisement for the Champions Cup which the organisers could not have paid for, or dare to imagine in the darker days of the pandemic.

It can only serve to make other French clubs look on enviously. It also highlights how important the European Champions Cup has become to La Rochelle in a relatively short period of time and it’s hard to imagine that this dramatic shift in attitude would have happened if it hadn’t been for Ronan O’Gara, one of the competition’s most legendary figures as a player.

Had Leinster won a fifth Champions Cup there would probably have been no mayoral reception, no open-top bus street parade. That’s what happens when a team sates its public with a success. Instead, the squad probably consider the season less than successful no matter if they win the URC, and after consoling themselves with their family and friends on Saturday, probably had a few beers among themselves on Sunday.

No less than three years ago against Saracens in Newcastle and perhaps even more so, this one will still sting, and for some time to come. Leinster had spent 13 months almost reinventing themselves so as to avoid a repetition of last season’s semi-final, only for it to happen again in a final.

It’s so hard to be coldly analytical in the immediate aftermath of a game, even for coaches. There has been some deeply critical analysis of Leinster for underperforming on the day last Saturday. Yet suppose Wayne Barnes awarded Michael Ala’alatoa a late penalty in the jackal, as he did for Danny Priso at the start of the second-half when the tackler still hadn’t rolled away, and as he did when Sean O’Brien latched on for dear life in Leinster’s win over Clermont in Bordeaux a decade ago?

Then Leinster would have grittily won a final which was effectively an away match. As in Bilbao four seasons ago, they’d have won a final without a scoring a try. As in Bilbao, they would have shown the character of champions.

Instead, as O’Gara noted, La Rochelle would have been labelled bottlers and Leinster, à la Liverpool, are not great after all.

Scoreboard analysis, eh?

In truth Leinster were far closer to beating La Rochelle in an away final last Saturday than they were behind closed doors 13 months ago. They weren’t at their fluid best. They left chances behind. They actually started the game really well, with a potent maul and a good launch off their lineout.

Far be it from this column to question Johnny Sexton’s judgment amid the midfield maelstrom — what he sees in a split second is akin to the camera angle from the helmet in Jamie Foxx’s quarterback in Any Given Sunday — but one wonders if he had pulled the ball back for Garry Ringrose after Ronan Kelleher had peeled infield. La Rochelle had narrowed up. Ringrose might have put Jimmy O’Brien over.

It was that kind of day for Sexton and Leinster. Events conspired to give them an away final in France against the best supported team in France, and their most voraciously hungry club, in hot temperatures with Wayne Barnes as ref.

The bounces of the ball didn’t go their way, particularly when it brushed off Jimmy O’Brien for a goal line drop out rather than a scrum on halfway, and when not going dead from Brice Dulin’s ensuing drop goal and Thomas Berjon’s selfless chase collared Sexton. Sexton will know he still should have cleared the ball although by then, to compound their day, the captain is limping after James Ryan caught his left leg when tackling Dillon Lleyds in the first-half.

When it’s not your day.

The try that might have killed the game remained tantalisingly out of reach. Leinster played some good rugby. They had to in order to earn seven kickable penalties. But perhaps that was even part of O’Gara’s plan. Keep risking playing Jamison Gibson-Park’s arm, even when part of the ruck. (How did La Rochelle get away with that?) Keep pushing up, even if it risks offside. Whatever else, don’t let them score a try.

Maybe, as Sexton wondered aloud without prompting, Leinster should have risked going for a seven-pointer as La Rochelle did in the last ten minutes. But nearly all Leinster’s penalties were dead straight in front of the posts, guaranteed three-pointers, and it’s hard to quibble with the decision-making each time.

It was fitting that Shaun Edwards was in the crowd. Most worrying of all, along with going after Leinster’s breakdown, cutting off the edges and defending in their faces, O’Gara and co took a leaf out of the Edwards manual and provided a template for how to stymie and beat inventive and skilful sides like Leinster and Ireland. Saturday had shades of Paris last February.

And as Irish sides now have a question mark over their scrums, then go after them there. Even if means scrummaging utterly illegally, as Leicester did in Welford Road and La Rochelle last Saturday, with their pack angling toward Tadhg Furlong’s side even before the put-in.

La Rochelle deserved their win for sure. They had their array of physical behemoths to force their way over the line and good luck to O’Gara and them. What he’s done in his first season as a head coach after assiduously learning his coaching trade with Racing, Crusaders and La Rochelle has been remarkable and way in advance of schedule. He looks well placed to be Irish head coach one day.

Leinster’s wounds will take healing. Leinster and Ireland could do with a win against a French side on French soil. It’s long overdue and has become a monkey on the back. But come the start of next season, while it may be a tougher nut to crack with the South Africans aboard and Saracens aback, at least they’ll know the Champions Cup final is in the Aviva Stadium.

It may not seem an inspiring choice. Predictably, some of the criticism across the pond has been way over the top. But it’s chosen because Dublin is a guaranteed winner. That’s because the Irish supporters have punched way above their weight, unlike others, and after an 11-year absence the city deserves it.

It wouldn’t be the worst place in the world to earn that fifth star either.

gerry.thornley@iishtimes.com