RugbyTalking Point

Leinster’s ‘exit strategies’ not up to scratch as La Rochelle punish errors

Sliced and snatched clearances gave French side the momentum in the second half

Three times Leinster have led La Rochelle at half-time in Heineken Champions Cup matches and, on each occasion, the final whistle has signalled a death knell, the point in time at which there is no escape or respite from enveloping purgatory of defeat. It’s a desolate place, more so when the perpetrators are perennial foes.

Ahead by a point at the interval in their 2021 semi-final, Leinster lost by nine, up by five in last year’s final in Marseilles the Irish province went down by three but Saturday’s defeat to the yellow and black clad Les Maritimes will sting the most; 17-0 up after 11 minutes, nine points to the good at the halfway point and they eventually succumb by the minimum margin.

Leinster’s collapse was arguably as much mental as it was physical as La Rochelle drained their opponents’ belief as emphatically as they did the energy levels of their hosts to a point where Leo Cullen’s side resorted to an indiscriminate and, at times, panicked kicking game, particularly in the second half.

It is induced by pressure, trying to think clearly while in oxygen deficit. There is no questioning their attitude and commitment, evidenced by some huge defensive plays, just in that split second execution when they had the chance to release the valve with judicious kicking. Instead, they pursued a policy of trying to kick it as far away from their goal-line as if it would ward off La Rochelle attacks.


In rugby parlance, Leinster’s ‘exit strategies,’ weren’t up to scratch, something that a couple of players acknowledged independently in separate conversations.

A spiralling error-rate in this facet of the game undermined their efforts to escape the claustrophobic post-interval squeeze on possession and territory that their opponents exerted.

There were one or two signs prior to half-time, James Lowe’s smothered clearance the jumping off point that would, after they subsequently won a penalty, lead to a try for centre UJ Seuteni. Leinster’s kicking game in the second half wasn’t good enough and it started early.

Jamison Gibson-Park twice hoofed the ball down the pitch but from the second a poorly resourced, ambling kick/chase meant that Brice Dulin had a chance to counter-attack; it eventually led to a Seuteni break that forced Leinster to concede a penalty and three points.

The visitors helped themselves to three more points after the Leinster scrumhalf kicked the ball out on the full having been warned by referee Jaco Peyper that the ball had been taken back into the 22.

[Some day, we will get over the line’: Leo Cullen not losing faith after Champions Cup final loss]

Ross Byrne had a kick charged down but the home side escaped courtesy of Dan Sheehan’s brilliant breakdown turnover. Leinster’s resilience in defence was undermined by a mishmash of sliced, snatched clearances and hoofing the ball down the pitch in desperately searching for relief from the stranglehold that La Rochelle had on possession and territory.

There’s no doubt that the physical toll of multiple defensive sets over a prolonged period caught up with Leinster whose energy levels looked depleted in the final quarter to a point where it was easier to kick long than it was to try and retain possession or push the ball to the wider channels.

It wasn’t that they lacked courage per se, more energy. Time and again Leinster players came up with some stunning defensive plays but failed to drive their opponents back over the halfway line when handed the opportunity to do so. Hindsight will reveal that Leo Cullen’s side needed to hang onto the ball because handing it over meant another prolonged period of tackling.

In some respects, the 60th minute summed up Leinster’s jumbled thinking. The excellent Robbie Henshaw won turnover possession at a ruck in a good field position from which Leinster would normally attack their opponents; instead, the ball was flung back to Byrne, standing deep and he kicked it straight down the pitch.

Those misdirected clearances gave La Rochelle the platform they craved, lineout mauls, and they used their superior size to good effect. In a game of minuscule margins this was crucial.

Leinster had bravely defended some of those mauls, forced a couple of turnovers, but when the champions needed this set piece to function most, it proved the crucial conduit for their match-winning score. They squeezed Leinster for three penalties in short order, each time eking out a new advantage.

Having punted a penalty to the corner rather than take an easy three points trailing 26-20, the French club doubled down on trying to engineer a game -winning position.

Will Skelton grabbed possession, the maul went forward towards the Leinster line and, with a free play on penalty advantage, Ronan O’Gara’s side hammered away with a series of muscular, direct carries until their huge replacement tighthead prop Henri Colombe forced his way over the line from close range. Kelleher received a yellow card for good measure.

Antoine Hastoy’s conversion gave the defending champions a one-point advantage. Even before La Rochelle lost Jonathan Danty to a yellow card, Leinster suddenly rediscovered some of their attacking DNA when trying to chase the game and in doing so largely abandoned the kicking game.

It nudged them to the threshold of salvaging a victory and begged a question as to why they didn’t turn in that direction sooner. The answer to which may pave the way forward following this harrowing loss.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer