At last Saturday’s Heineken Cup final at the Stade Velodrome, with 23 minutes to go, the La Rochelle forwards were blowing like steam trains.
At that point, apart from Raymond Rhule’s excellent try, La Rochelle had been ill-disciplined and sloppy. Passes had gone to the ground and they were penalised multiple times for being offside and illegal at mauls, rucks and scrums.
Then the minuscule margins between success and failure at the elite end of sport came into play. The tiny actions that individually seem so unimportant began to meld together to create a force that would turn this game completely around.
In the 57th minute, when Leinster were leading 18-10, referee Wayne Barnes awarded La Rochelle a penalty, 60 metres from Leinster’s line. At that moment the La Rochelle forward pack were dead on their feet, and three La Rochelle players were on their backs getting attention from the medical staff. Then scrumhalf Thomas Berjon did a “crazy”.
He took a quick tap. All rugby common sense said he should have waited and kicked for the corner, then empowered the La Rochelle pack to maul towards a score. A quick tap was tactical madness.
Berjon passed to his outside centre Jeremy Sinzelle, who added to the poor decision-making by rushing a kick that was far too deep. The ball appeared to be bouncing unerringly across Leinster’s touch in goal line. If it did Leinster would receive a scrum put in, back where Sinzelle had kicked the ball, 50 metres up the field.
A great outcome for Leinster.
Jimmy O’Brien had the kick well covered and correctly was shepherding the ball towards the touch in goal line when, with the kick’s last joule of energy, the ball did what rugby balls have done for 200 years. It bounced at an outrageously high angle and skimmed O’Brien’s shorts the instant before it crossed the touch in goal line. Leinster were forced to kick a try-line drop out.
The bounce of the ball kicked momentum to La Rochelle, who mauled a try soon after. Just when momentum began to swing behind the French side, La Rochelle produced crazy once more. Their lowest point came in the 64th minute when their lock Thomas Lavault produced an act of rugby madness and tripped Jamison Gibson-Park. As Lavault trudged from the field after being yellow-carded any hopes of à La Rochelle triumph appeared to be slumping off with him.
The scribes were sharpening their pencils to crucify Ronan O’Gara for defeat in three consecutive finals and Leinster were minutes away from a fifth champions of Europe star.
But crazy was not done with this match.
The series of slow scrums, lineouts and restarts that dominated the last 15 minutes of the game, following the sin bin, counterintuitively gave the La Rochelle forwards the long rest periods between plays they required to restore some of their all-but-empty aerobic reserves. Leinster hardly touched the ball again and they could not clear their red zone.
With three minutes to go and Leinster desperately defending their 21-18 lead with staggering physicality, Michael Ala’alatoa legally contested and won possession at a tackle. That should have been a penalty to Leinster and the game all but over for La Rochelle. Referees are human and Barnes got it badly wrong, awarding La Rochelle what turned out to be a match-winning penalty. The men in blue were at the point of snapping. Yet courageously, somehow Leinster still refused to break.
With 78 minutes and 46 seconds gone on the match clock, Arthur Retiere, the La Rochelle replacement scrumhalf, made an error. He picked the ball up from the base of a ruck, two metres from the Leinster try-line and he slipped, then fell to the ground.
Garry Ringrose had anticipated Retiere’s run and was in position for another of his many powerful hits, but Retiere’s tiny slip broke his timing. Ringrose did not get any solid contact on him.
After the “Rochelais” fell to the turf of the Stade Velodrome, he reached out and in a split-second changed the course of his club’s history and his coaches’ lives. His tiny action of placing the ball on the try line had won the match.
La Rochelle had done the impossible as Leinster’s seemingly unyielding defence exploded.
Seventy two seconds away from being crowned champions and the unthinkable became a reality. The Leinster players simply slumped to the ground, emotionally shattered.
I can only imagine the anguish and pain the Leinster team have had to endure over the past seven days. I have no idea how Leo Cullen and his coaches have found the mental clarity to prepare for their URC quarter-final this weekend. Just as I am not sure if the La Rochelle party will have sobered up in time for their must-win last round Top 14 match away to Lyon.
This week much has been said along the lines that La Rochelle and O’Gara were brilliantly untouchable, with a game plan of extreme excellence.
The truth is last week’s final was won by the skinniest and finest of margins. Up until the sin bin in the 64th minute La Rochelle were highly inaccurate and ill-disciplined. As Ronan said after the game: “The sin bin galvanised us. It gave us a cause.”
O’Gara, Donnacha Ryan and their team deserve great credit for the tenacity of their victory. To quote Ronan again: “We learned how to be mentally tough.” Quite an understatement.
Despite the hurt and humiliation, any suggestion that Leinster are finished as future Champion Cup contenders should be dismissed.
The Leinster players and staff will retreat into their own personal safe place and try to heal themselves. As an organisation, Leinster does not permit itself to be defined by others. They understand that elite sport is no fairytale and next year they may once again come up short. But then again last week they were a mere 72 seconds away from being crowned champions.
I have little doubt that next season, when the business end comes around, Leinster will once again be close to the top of the pile. With a team made up of 20 local players, all born and bred in the province. Which is an outstanding achievement in itself.
As painful as last week was, as always rugby provides us with many lessons. For Leinster it is not how many times you get knocked down that matters, but how many times you pick yourself up from the floor and get back into the fight that counts. Get knocked down seven times. Get up eight.
Because as I have told you all many times in the past, champions get up, even when they can’t.