No Leinster side has ever nursed such a painful hangover into a new season. Losing their URC home semi-final to Munster was one thing. Losing the Champions Cup final after leading 17-0 inside a dozen minutes against La Rochelle also at the Aviva Stadium was quite another. To compound this, 17 of their players were then part of the Irish World Cup campaign that ended in even more anticlimactically.
But, ironically, if any club can possibly identify with their pain it is La Rochelle. Four weeks after their comeback win which left Leinster crestfallen, they were within two-and-a-half minutes of reaching their Holy Grailand avenging their defeat in the final two seasons previously against Toulouse to win their first bouclier de brennus.
Whereupon, Romain Ntamack scored his wonder 60-metre solo try to break La Rochelle hearts. Their supporters, who had been raucously cheering their team on to the greatest day in the club’s history, were stunned into silence. Ronan O’Gara has rarely looked so shocked by a defeat.
To compound this, they provided seven players to the French squad who came up short in an equally compelling quarter-final in a once-in-a-lifetime home World Cup, as well as Will Skelton, the injured captain of Australia’s first World Cup pool exit, Levan Botia to Fiji (beaten in the quarter-finals by England), Joel Sclavi to Argentina and UJ Seuteni to Samoa.
Although all bar one have returned in recent weeks, the one exception is Grégory Alldritt, the heartbeat of their team in recent seasons who had agreed with the club to take a break after the World Cup until January.
In all, 105 players in the Top 14 this season took part in the World Cup, and only Toulouse were bigger bulk suppliers, providing 10 of the French squad and 17 players in total. The top two by a distance last season, such have been the demands on Toulouse and La Rochelle, both domestically last season and in the World Cup, that they sit sixth and ninth with five wins out of nine and four out of nine.
O’Gara’s displeasure with the officiating in his side’s loss to Racing 92 a fortnight ago has also led to his latest suspension, of just one week, thereby banishing him from the dressing-room and pitch side for tomorrow’s game.
“I’m sure himself and Donnacha [Ryan] will have their phones switched on,” James Coughlan, their former Munster team-mate, told The Irish Times this week, who was surprised O’Gara’s suspension was only one week given previous suspensions.
“They’ve been under pressure,” added Coughlan, who has played and coached in France for a decade with Pau, Aix, Brive and Toulon, before taking a sabbatical this season.
La Rochelle began their season in late August with a defeat in Montpellier, the champions two seasons ago who have since lost eight in a row to sit at the bottom of the Top 14. Two weeks after France’s quarter-final exit, O’Gara’s side lost at their Stade Marcel-Deflandre fortress to Castres and then away to Oyonnax.
Even when welcoming back Pierre Boudehent, Antoine Hastoy, Jonathan Danty and Seuteni, they struggled past Bayonne, notoriously poor travellers with one win in 18 away league games over the last two seasons, by 18-15.
Another week on, O’Gara also restored his French World Cup front-rowers Reda Wardi, Pierre Bourgarit and Uini Atonio, but although La Rochelle beat Bordeaux-Bègles they were desperately defending their own line at the end.
And even including seven of their World Cup contingent away to Racing 92, with Hastoy at fullback, their 32-10 defeat was their fourth in four away games.
Last week’s selection strongly suggests O’Gara wanted to keep their powder dry for this week. Despite Skelton’s return, they only led lowly Perpignan 7-6 at half-time, before the introduction of Bourgarit, Wardi, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Hastoy and Danty to bludgeon the Catalan club by 35-6.
“They brought out the heavyweights against Perpignan and blew them away. Perpignan conceded a yellow card and a penalty try early in the second-half, and that changed it. Then they got a couple of scores and Skelton was back, which made a big difference to them,” observed Coughlan.
“I watched the full game against Racing and they were under the pump. But nearing half-time they had one disallowed try from a maul and if that counted they could have gone in 17-all at half-time.”
Instead, the game was distorted by a 25th-minute red card for Teddy Thomas as well as a yellow card for Bourgarit and penalty try within another two minutes, with Nolann le Garrec adding another Racing try in a five-minute spell which ended the contest.
“Obviously playing with 14 men for that long a time on a synthetic pitch isn’t going to help you, and Racing ran away with it in the end,” added Coughlan. “But they [La Rochelle] haven’t been playing well. I think themselves, Toulouse and Bordeaux were the three most affected effected by the World Cup in relation to selection.”
As for Alldritt’s absence, Coughlan said: “We know how good a player he is and how integral he is to their success. They didn’t have Skelton until last week, and were missing all the others until the last few weeks.
“It’s the first time, as well, that Rog has had that problem, from a game management point of view. Not that he hasn’t experienced it as a player, but it’s difficult when you’re trying to juggle your needs. Outside of Toulouse as well, most of the French lads were back within a week.
“Hastoy played at fullback against Racing, with Ihaia West at ‘10′, so he’s juggling the two of them. It’s a tough balancing act when you haven’t experienced it before.
“But I’d say that’s the only bit of experience that Rog hasn’t had. It’s done for you in Ireland, where everyone was given three weeks’ holidays and we’ll see you in three weeks. That’s not the case here, and apart from everything else, you’ve players finishing [the World Cup] at different times as well.”
“Now he’s not the only coach with this World Cup hangover. Toulouse got ditched in Stade Francais last week, which would normally never happen,” added Coughlan. “It wasn’t a fluke. Stade Francais deserved it from minute one and it wasn’t as if Toulouse sent the seconds.”
Indeed, Toulouse had 11 of their World Cup contingent in their match-day 23, and briefly rallied after the introduction of Antoine Dupont of the bench, but were beaten 27-12.
“Ugo Mola is going through the same thing as Rog, because he had a couple of Argentinians, (Santiago) Chocobares and [Juan Cruz] Mallia as well right until that stupid third/fourth place play-off. So it’s not an ideal way of starting your defence of a French Championship or in Rog’s case, the European Cup.”
Coughlan believes La Rochelle can still field a strong XV, if not their most impactful bench, but has detected one particular area where they have come up a little shorter than normal, namely: “The contest at the breakdown, which allows them to get the line speed. That would be the main difference when you look at it, but when I say that, [Levani] Botia and Alldritt haven’t been around, and Bourgarit has been trying to cover everybody, and apart from everything else, he didn’t play a lot [116 minutes] in the World Cup. So you don’t have that consistency. They didn’t have the big boys and they’ll all be back this week.
In this Coughlan also acknowledges that La Rochelle, team and supporters alike, will be seriously up for this game, all the more so given the animosity which the last two finals have engendered, and bearing in mind the home fans weren’t present for their semi-final win at the Stade Deflandre during the lockdown three seasons ago.
“The stadium will be rammed and there’ll be a lot of excitement around the place. It mightn’t be the worst thing in the world that Rog is banned and isn’t on the side of the pitch after whatever happened with Seanie [O’Brien] at half-time,” ventured Coughlan, chuckling.
“It’s weird though, isn’t it, that you have a repeat of the final in the first round?” said Coughlan, ahead of the team announcements during the week. “Johnny is gone but whoever plays ‘10′ they’re in for a rough day of it because they know they’re getting down their nose all day.”
“What they’ll be saying is: ‘This is how we start the season. If we want to judge ourselves, this is where we go now. We start by beating Leinster and then we go from there.’ They’ll be putting out their strongest team to have their best performance of the season so far.
“I saw Atonio, on the front of Midi Olimpique, saying that ‘we’re back now. It’s time to get going.’ So, they will go big. They’ll go heavy. It’s been raining all the time, but their pitch is immaculate.”
Nor does Coughlan envisage any veering from the game plan that has ultimately stifled and overpowered Leinster in the last three meetings.
“Why change things? It works. For Rog it’s ‘put them under the pump.’ Where they’ve been relentless against Leinster is attacking the breakdown and slowing down their ball. Defensively that gives you the line speed and that’s what has been missing.
“Getting the big boys back also means you can generate quicker ball yourselves because you’re getting over the gain line. On the other side of the ball they’ll be looking at double hits and second man in just causing havoc at the breakdown.
“Rog’s defence is defend the ball; get up and smash the man with the ball. ‘If we all defend the ball they can’t score, then be a nuisance at the breakdown, whether you win it or counter-ruck and go after it.’ But Leinster don’t crack.”
“It’s a tough one,” added Coughlan, who forecast that La Rochelle would win each of the last two finals. “Leinster will be ready for this one. They haven’t played a lot and Rog knows that as well, that the boys have been held back for this game.”
With neither side having hit their straps, with little in the way of form per se, hence Coughlan cannot call this one. “La Rochelle won’t be heavy favourites, when normally they would be at home.”
O’Gara has been more sympathetic to the demands on his frontline players than some of his Top 14 counterparts, which may well bear fruit as the season progresses. They’ve had a slightly weary-looking, slow-burning campaign thus far, but clearly O’Gara, the squad and supporters, see this grudge match as the means of kick starting their season.