Leinster can bury bitter memory and collect fifth title but there’s no easy way past La Rochelle

Ronan O’Gara’s defending champions look like the team best equipped to hurt Leinster

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O'Gara during the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium ahead of Saturday's Champions Cup final against Leinster. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Champions Cup Final: Leinster v La Rochelle, Saturday, 4.45, Aviva Stadium (Live on RTÉ 2 & BT Sport)

And so, finally, the dream final has come to pass. It’s never happened before. For the first time in the tournament’s history, the same two teams will contest consecutive finals. Yet it has seemed almost preordained.

As Leo Cullen said on Friday, in the immediate aftermath of last May’s heartbreaking loss to La Rochelle in the Stade Velodrome, if Leinster had been offered a shot at redemption in the final 12 months on in Dublin they’d have bitten off your hand.

Indeed, in the post-match quietness of a shattered Leinster dressingroom, the knowledge that they had the incentive of a first final to be staged in Dublin for a decade the following season was about the one positive message Johnny Sexton could relay to his team-mates.

Both they and La Rochelle started this season’s edition as the first two in the betting, both topped their respective 12-team pools and both plotted home routes to the final, each eviscerating Toulouse and Exeter, recent champions, in the semi-finals. This could be a monumental match. In fact, it should be.


Whether or not last week’s surprise URC semi-final defeat by Munster intensifies the pressure on Leinster to win a cherished fifth star after so many recent near misses, and induces some of the anxiety evident in last season’s final, remains to be seen.

La Rochelle arrive with the confidence derived from beating Leinster in the last two seasons, and from being champions. If ever a team was designed to spoil the party, it’s Ronan O’Gara’s side.

There’s also the nagging fear that they have emulated Saracens as the template of a side designed to stop Leinster from reaching their full rhythm, with big, bad Will Skelton the common denominator.

Like Saracens, La Rochelle will look to impose their power with a defensive system designed for all-out attack on the ball, be it the first four in the line flying up, Skelton and Uni Atonio counter-rucking like human bulldozers, and Pierre Bourgarit, Levani Botia, Grégory Alldritt, Jonathan Danty et al, contesting at virtually every ruck. And Jaco Peyper can let it be a little free and loose at the breakdown.

With Atonio and Skelton often employed to similar effect at the front of opposition lineouts, and in harness at the right side of the scrum, they can be wrecking balls on opposition there too. That said, Leinster’s maul generated significant momentum last year, and quick scrums limited the damage on their own feeds too.

Where La Rochelle won the game was in generating go-forward off their big carriers to narrow the Leinster defence, and then exploit space on the edges, particularly through the offloading game of the roving Dillyn Leyds. And then their maul, and route one, pick-and-jam approach, simply wore Leinster down.

Ultimately, with 61 per cent of possession, they forced Leinster to make 224 tackles, while making 88 themselves. Munster took a leaf out of this last week, earning 57 per cent possession and making Leinster complete 246 tackles. Victory by starvation.

Interestingly, Cullen agreed that the dimensions of the Aviva pitch are bigger than, for example, the Stade Velodrome – which is designed specifically for football.

Leinster flanker Josh van der Flier walks past the Champions Cup trophy ahead of the captain's run at the Aviava Stadium. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

“What does that mean? You’ve still got to get the fundamentals of the game right; contact area, set-piece battle. You’ve got to get those bits right, but there definitely will be more space to play in. So, who is able to exploit that additional space will be key,” said Cullen.

A home final certainly won’t be a disadvantage, just like 12 months ago when the majority of the La Rochelle supporters willed their team through attacking waves, and Wayne Barnes’s penalty count went one way.

But with tickets like gold dust, it will be interesting to see how much blue will be in evidence. Yet if ever the Leinster fans are going to be proactively behind their team, it has to be this evening.

“That’s the beauty of sport, that’s the fascination,” said O’Gara in welcoming the prospect of entering the Lions’ Den.

“Leinster are going to have purple patches for sure. It’s just how we manage those pressure moments will decide how the game goes.

“Over the 80 minutes there should be enough of an opportunity for us to play rugby, to impose our game. That’s what we’re banking on as opposed to taking the home crowd on.”

La Rochelle have seven changes from last May’s starting XV, and they look stronger with the addition of Antoine Hastoy and UJ Seuteni’s creativity, and Tawera Kerr-Barlow – injured a year ago but in scintillating form in the knockout stages with his ability to sniff openings.

Apart from Ross Byrne taking Sexton’s place, the only other change from the starting XV is that Dan Sheehan this time starts ahead of Rónan Kelleher. Given the bitter memory of last May, that should ensure no Leinster side has ever been better primed. Players like Sheehan, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are all in superb form too.

But will they play as much rugby between the two 10-metre lines as they did in last season’s final or will they kick more, and will they make more use of grubbers and chips and crossfield kicks to counter that La Rochelle defence? Will they gamble more on going to the corner than when taking seven three-pointers last May? For against that, they don’t want a game of trench warfare.

Leinster basically try to play the same way in every game, and that’s generally because they win by doing so. So a more likely scenario, perhaps, is that they opt for Plan A only better, that they execute their starter plays, generate rapid-fire quick ball, pick their moments to find the edges and take on the La Rochelle juggernaut by playing Leinster rugby.

Most of all, as befits this huge occasion, you just sense they are primed for a huge performance.

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

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Jason Jenkins, Ryan Baird, Luke McGrath, Ciaran Frawley, Charlie Ngatai.á

LA ROCHELLE: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, UJ Seuteni, Jonathan Danty, Raymond Rhule; Antoine Hastoy, Tawera Kerr Barlow; Reda Wardi, Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio; Romain Sazy, Will Skelton; Paul Boudehent, Levani Botia, Grégory Alldritt (capt).

Replacements: Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes, Joel Sclavi, Georges Henri Colombe, Thomas Lavault, Remi Bourdeau, Ultan Dillane, Thomas Berjon, Jules Favre.

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

Assistants: Karl Dickson (England), Christophe Ridley (England)

TMO: Tom Foley (England)

Previous meetings – 2020-21, semi-final: La Rochelle 32 Leinster 23. 2021-22, final: La Rochelle 24 Leinster 21.

Betting: 3-10 Leinster, 20-1 Draw, 13-5 La Rochelle. Handicap odds (La Rochelle +7 pts) 10-11 Leinster, 20-1 Draw, 10-11 La Rochelle.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times