RugbyMatch Report

Leinster left to rue one that got away as La Rochelle break their hearts again

Champions Cup final: Heartbreak for the Irish province as they lose despite holding 17-point lead in first half

Champions Cup final: Leinster 26 La Rochelle 27

There are no prizes for being one of the two best sides in European rugby, by a distance, for two seasons in a row, not even after the Champions Cup game of the season and one of the truly great finals, least of all another set of darned runners-up medals.

But more so than after the 2019 loss to Saracens in Newcastle or last year’s defeat by La Rochelle in Marseille, this was the one that got away. This one will cut the deepest.

As well as hosting a final in their home city for the first time ever, Leinster also stormed into a three-try, 17-point lead in the opening dozen minutes and deservedly led by 23-7 just past the half-hour. They’ll never have an opportunity quite like it again.

Yet Leo Cullen was adamant that Leinster can pick themselves up off the floor again.


“Yes, absolutely. The quality of people, that’s the biggest piece for me, and there’s some bloody good young players coming through as well and we need to do everything we can to support them. I’d have a lot of confidence. The experience makes you stronger, it’ll make you stronger over time.

“I understand how hard it is, making sure you have that constant focus in terms of the habits we deliver day-to-day and when you get to this big stage that you’re able to nail those opportunities.

“I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not like you just turn up and someone’s going to hand it to you. It’s going to be hard but that’s the challenge isn’t it, putting yourself in that situation again.

“It’s a really good crop of players there, they just have to keep believing in themselves.”

Regrets, Leinster will have a few for sure. But for starters, amid all the recriminations, it’s worth noting that from the coaches’ meetings and plans, the training ground and the team leaders, Leinster could not have set up any better.

This was evidenced by the starter plays which led to the first of Dan Sheehan’s tries, James Lowe’s 50/22, the quick tap by Jamison Gibson-Park prompting Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s yellow card, and the lines, carrying and finishes by Jimmy O’Brien and Sheehan again off brilliant passes by Ross Byrne and Gibson-Park.

Nor did it stop there. The much-improved line speed, chop tackles, ball-and-all tackles, and two-man tackles frequently stopped the La Rochelle juggernaut behind their own gainline. Leinster actually won the collision zone hands down in that first half-hour and thereafter they absolutely emptied themselves. They could not be faulted remotely for what they put into this final.

Perhaps the cruellest blow of all was losing James Ryan just as Ross Byrne was about to make it 23-7 when the lock followed through a monster tackle on Will Skelton, of all people, only for his head to collide with Reda Wardi’s knee.

Ryan was having one of the performances of his career in the best season of his career, and thereafter it was not entirely co-incidental that La Rochelle increasingly bullied Leinster into submission.

In an agonising, one-point defeat of fine margins – Ross Byrne twice hitting the upright with conversions tight to the right touchline – Leo Cullen admitted that his team lacked a little composure in the second period.

Perhaps previous failures and the pressure to earn that cherished fifth star on home soil contributed to this, along with the unrelenting physical pressure heaped upon them in the second period by La Rochelle, particularly through their increasingly dominant maul which trundled forward like a lawnmower.

The Leinster think tank will surely look back on that second-half and question whether they should have contested more of the La Rochelle throws in the air, and what more they might have done to engineer releases from the La Rochelle strangulation.

Alas, there were unfortunately two poor exit kicks apiece by Gibson-Park and Lowe, each of whom played superbly apart from those errors, as well as Byrne having a charge down kick off a line-out.

Yet, the first-half tries by Jonathan Danty and UJ Seuteni were well-timed shots across the bow and there was an inevitability about Georges-Henri Colombes’ 72nd minute try which Antoine Hastoy converted to put La Rochelle in front.

Even then, falling behind for the first time in the match, Leinster were galvanised into action. Byrne’s judgement of taking on a difficult 45 metre penalty into a significant breeze has to be respected. Leinster would still have had almost two minutes left on the clock from a five-metres scrum to engineer a match-winning try, penalty or drop goal but for the no-arms clear-out by Michael Ala’allatoa on Colombe which led to the former’s red card and, with it, their last chance. Then, as ever, the post-match discussion would be so different.

But when all that is said and done, and there were some hugely questionable calls by Jaco Peyper and his team of officials, it has to be admitted that La Rochelle were deserving conquerors of Leinster for the third season in a row on the balance of play.

You couldn’t begrudge O’Gara his moments of celebration with his mum, family, players and staff. He overplayed the lack of respect stuff, but it assuredly helped psyche his players, and he’s built some team.

This wasn’t the Irish Grand Slam winning side being beaten by a French club side. This was Leinster being beaten by a side which, as O’Gara listed them off, is what he regards as a Test team as well, and that this is just the beginning. You wouldn’t doubt him for a second.

Scoring sequence: 1 min Sheehan try, Byrne con 7-0; 6 mins O’Brien try 12-0; 12 mins Sheehan try 17-0; 20 mins Danty try, Hastoy con 17-7; 24 mins Byrne pen 20-7; 31 mins Byrne pen 23-7; 38 mins Seuteni try, Hastoy con 23-14; (half-time 23-14); 44 mins Hastoy pen 23-17; 47 mins Byrne pen 26-17; 50 mins Hastoy 26-20; 72 mins Colombe try, Hastoy con 26-27.

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: Jason Jenkins for Ryan (30 mins), Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong (45 mins), Ryan Baird for Conan (59 mins), Charlie Ngatai fr Henshaw (62 mins), Ronan Kelleher for Sheehan (69 mins), Cian Healy for Porter, Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park, Ciaran Frawley for O’Brien (all 79 mins).

STADE ROCHELAIS: 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: Thomas Lavault for Sazy (50 mins), Joel Sclavi for Wardi, Georges Henri Colombe for Atonio (both 59 mins), Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes for Bourgarit, Ultan Dillane for Boudehent (both 66 mins), Remi Bourdeau for Botia ( (69 mins), Atonio for Colombe (79 mins). Not used: Thomas Berjon, Jules Favre.

Sinbinned: Kerr Barlow (11-21 mins), Jonathan Danty (75 mins).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times