Matt Williams: La Rochelle and Leinster pay the price of victory and defeat

The two sets of players were left emotionally busted by their very different experiences in a memorable Champions Cup final

Too often we view our leading rugby players like characters from a Marvel comic.

Clad in a uniform befitting a Superhero and glorified in the unreality of social media, we forget that these are just young people at the beginning of their adult journey playing a game.

Like all of us and unlike superheroes, players are vulnerable to extreme emotions. The great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson in describing life said: “Eventually, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences”.

Last weekend both Leinster and La Rochelle sat down to dine on the emotional consequences created by their meeting in the Champions Cup final a fortnight earlier.

Centuries ago the legendary master swordsman and Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, issued a warning of potential emotional harm to those who engage in physical conflict. In his classical 17th century martial arts text, The Book of Five Rings, he wrote that a warrior must: “Understand the harm and benefit of everything”.

Zen-like, he warned that at times it is both healthy and harmful to experience victory and defeat because in every contest defeat lurks in silent ambush, alongside the heady cocktail of victory.

When a player commits to entering into a competitive rugby environment they also step into a similar journey of self discovery.

Rugby is a game designed to place young people into situations that force them to experience the exhilaration of being part of an interdependent community, that works in harmony to achieve success, while realising that each game brings the possibility of being swarmed by the cutting pain of defeat, perceived failure and physical hurt.

The ancients crafted a game for the players to experience the giant pendulum swings of emotion, from the great highs of victory to the deep lows of defeat. All designed to prepare those who are brave enough to play for life far away from the pretend world of sport. So when hardships arise in life after rugby they will have some of the experiences required to empower them to endure and flourish.

The game remains the great teacher but, like life, at times it is also a harsh one.

A decade ago, La Rochelle languished in the secondary competition of French rugby, the Pro D2. At that time, the thought of lifting the Champions Cup and defeating a team like Leinster in the final was a quixotic dream.

Then their team conjured up the late victory in Marseille and the impossible became a reality. The win triggered scenes in the city of La Rochelle that will live on in local history for decades to come.

The adulation of the crowds and the unbridled joy of the people was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the players, coaches and community.

After such a day of fervent and unprecedented celebrations on the Atlantic coast, the La Rochelle players never fully recovered from that emotional high. To fully refocus with the laser-like intensity required to win the Top14, understandably, proved impossible.

Last week in their elimination play-off match against Toulouse, La Rochelle were brave and dogged but their edge, that had shone so brightly in Marseille, was dulled. At the top of any sport the margins are very fine and La Rochelle simply could not recover to be at their best.

After Antoine Dupont unleashed a masterclass of mesmerizing play in the opening 40 minutes, as the half-time whistle blew, the Top14 was all but over for La Rochelle.

Their reward was to enter their summer vacation as European champions. A staggering achievement that produced the greatest upset in the history of the Heineken Cup final. A decade on from Pro D2 and La Rochelle now have a star on their chest. Under Ronan O’Gara, they will be hunting for more.

For the team they defeated, the outcomes could not be more different. I was on the sidelines post-match in Marseille and I have rarely seen such emotional desolation on the faces of rugby players. The Leinster players’ body language expressed more than pain. The team had invested so much emotion in their quest for a fifth star that they truly, madly, deeply believed the Champions Cup would be theirs.

While the game is designed for all who play it to experience the pain of defeat, this was the type of agony Musashi warned us about 400 years ago.

As La Rochelle’s day of celebration is now lodged deep inside their hearts, so will the pain of Marseille linger on at Leinster. Winners will always remember, while the defeated must try to forget.

Against Glasgow, Leinster were angry at their failure in Marseille and the Scots suffered the full brunt of that anger and frustration. Despite winning by more than 70 points, the reality was La Rochelle remained the Champions Cup winners and no power on earth would change that.

Last week against the Bulls, in a performance that mirrored La Rochelle’s against Toulouse, the harder Leinster tried, the worse things became. The more they forced the play, the deeper their frustration.

The ‘effortless effort’ required to be in ‘flow’ was replaced by laborious predictability. Leinster’s renowned precision deserted them as their emotional tank was sucked dry and ticked over onto empty.

When you understand the depth of the personal investment the Leinster players have made and how deeply they were hurt in Marseille, to watch that scab being busted open again was not easy to witness.

As I said, these are not superheroes. They are just young men.

Both La Rochelle and Leinster at no stage gave any indication of quitting. They were both brave beyond description. Both clubs have nothing to be ashamed of as they gave their all and more. In games that were defined by milimetres, it was their extreme experiences from either end of the emotional spectrum after the Champions Cup final that hindered their performances.

The two sets of players were emotionally busted by victory and defeat.

Many years ago my friend and former Wallaby, Chris Roach, visited Wimbledon. Above the players entrance to the Centre Court, there is a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. It is intended to be the final stoic message to the players before they face fierce competition on the hallowed grass of the All England Club. It reads: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”

In a raw Queensland accent, the ultra-competitive and tenacious open side flanker looked about and simply asked, “What happens if you can’t?”

Like so many who have gone before them, the players and coaches from La Rochelle and Leinster are about to discover the answers to that great question.