Gerry Thornley: Nienaber bringing a new voice to Leinster may now prove perfectly timed

Only the finest of margins denied Leinster the Champions Cup on Saturday, yet they do still need to take a good look at themselves

The reverberations from Saturday’s seismic Champions Cup final will be felt for some time to come. That was something of a benchmark final, which confirmed La Rochelle as the new major force in European club rugby, and to a degree marked the end of an era with Johnny Sexton and Stuart Lancaster riding off into the sunset.

That the latter’s profound impact was not marked with a second Champions Cup in his time as head coach, or that Sexton’s stellar 15-season career with the province was not rewarded with that coveted fifth star, will not define their time at Leinster.

Nor should it. Leinster were at a low ebb, having suffered a Pro12 final defeat by Connacht after five pool defeats out of six games in the Champions Cup in 2015-16 before Lancaster came aboard. They were transformed after Lancaster arrived, as the trophies returned and their production line contributed more handsomely than any of the province’s successes.

The pity is that Sexton effectively played little part in this season’s Champions Cup campaign, although this wasn’t felt at all really until the final, when we will never know what difference his presence might have made.


It doesn’t help any outhalf when the forwards are being marched backwards, particularly at lineout maul time

No matter how many quality outhalves Ireland might have as backup, he is a generational player who will remain first choice. But with the post-Sexton era at Leinster to be followed by the same with Ireland, last Saturday’s final did not deliver the kind of statement performance in victory from Ross Byrne that was hoped for.

Byrne is a world-class kicker and was unfortunate to see two touchline conversions hit the upright, although even if he landed one of them, who is to say that La Rochelle wouldn’t have found another score if trailing by eight rather than six points, such was their dominance of possession and territory in the second half?

The penalty Byrne turned down was on the cusp of his 45-metre range, and part of being a world-class kicker is also judging the breeze, which had become a significant factor, as well as the angle. Leinster were also kicking against the least sheltered end of the ground.

Not dropping into the pocket off the ensuing drive to offer the outlet of a drop goal was less understandable. Maybe Byrne would have done so had Leinster not been denied a final play from a five-metre scrum, but that did not materialise, due to Michael Ala’alatoa’s illegal clearout.

In any event, it did seem as if having an attempted clearance off a lineout in the 51st minute, when Tawera Kerr-Barlow made a great read and steamed straight toward him, compelled Byrne to play even deeper.

Admittedly, it doesn’t help any outhalf when the forwards are being marched backwards, particularly at lineout maul time. This is also part of a growing trend, for in Leinster’s last three finals and the semi-final defeat two seasons ago, they have scored 58 points in the four first periods, but only 22 after half-time when conceding 57; scoring one try and conceding six.

Being somewhat overpowered and forced to make an increasing amount of tackles by teams holding possession has been a recurring theme in all four games.

Leinster need to have a good look at themselves. The breakthrough first of four Champions Cup triumphs featured imported players such as Isa Nacewa, Chris Whitaker and Rocky Elsom, and the others had Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn and Scott Fardy.

If they are to compete with the elite Top 14 clubs such as La Rochelle and Toulouse, who have bigger budgets and invariably bigger players, and to do so with a highly creditable, mostly homegrown squad, then – no less so than before – their imported players need to be high-end.

That said, exceptional young players like Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan will not have woken up yesterday and decided: “That’s it, we’re finished.” The conveyor belt is still unrivalled, and it could well be that co-opting Jacques Nienaber on to the ticket now proves well-timed, bringing a fresh voice with new ideas who gets buy-in from his players, with Andrew Goodman having even more input into attack. And defences win championships.

There is an overwhelming sense of underachievement and even a sense of failure, by Leinster themselves more than anyone else

It’s also worth noting that this was only Byrne’s second defeat in 22 Champions Cup starts, albeit the other was also against La Rochelle, in the semi-final two seasons ago. Furthermore, for Byrne and most of last Saturday’s team, the loss was, remarkably, their first of the season.

Hence, in the URC game of the season and the Champions Cup game of the season on successive Saturdays they have been beaten by a combined total of three points. There is no shame in that, but there is an overwhelming sense of underachievement and even a sense of failure, by themselves more than anyone else.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. In its immediate aftermath, the temptation is to fear Leinster’s Irish contingent will be damaged psychologically for the World Cup, and that opponents will seek to ape La Rochelle’s mauling, injury timeouts, death by starvation cum strangulation.

But Leinster are not Ireland, and La Rochelle are not France. Different players, coaches, culture, details in attack and defence. The Leinster contingent will return to a winning Irish squad who are number one in the world by dint of beating France, among others, who rely almost as much on a Toulouse team whom Leinster eviscerated in the Champions Cup semi-finals.

They lost a great final by a point, and this writer owes an apology to Leinster fans in suggesting they needed to do more to up their game, judging by the reaction to this observation. While it was meant in the context of emulating the songbook and chanting from the 4,000 La Rochelle fans in attendance, the feedback from many in the stadium suggests that the press box’s proximity to the main swathe of the Yellow Army affected this perception. Sorry, got that one wrong!

“How long do we stick with them?” one Leinster fan also asked. For ever. That’s the deal.