Leo Cullen ‘not getting too excited’ after Leinster finally get one over La Rochelle

Leinster head coach says his side were ready for the conditions they faced at Stade Marcel Deflandre

Not for the first time, Leinster rode to the rescue. Amid an incessant Atlantic coast downpour in La Rochelle against the reigning back-to-back champions, Leo Cullen’s side maintained an unbeaten record in the pool stages dating back to a loss in Toulouse in October 2019 with a hard-earned, hard-nosed 16-9 win at the Stade Marcel Deflandre.

The odds on a winless weekend for all four Irish provinces in European rugby for the first time since the reverse fixtures in December 2012 seemed probable given Leinster had the toughest assignment.

But thanks in the main to innumerable and defiant last-ditch defending of their line, Leinster recorded one of their best and most rewarding wins in the Champions Cup. Albeit the celebrations were relatively muted and, not that he ever would, Cullen was not inclined to swing from the chandeliers in advance of hosting Sale next Saturday at the RDS (5.30).

“Well, it’s only round one for starters, so it’s not getting too excited at the moment. But we talked before the game that the conditions were going to play a big part. It was forecast all week so we tried to prepare accordingly.

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“But they’re hard games to prepare for. You’ve got to be able to adapt to the conditions on the day. Kicking game is hugely important, some of that set-piece battle is usually important,” said Cullen, who praised both Harry Byrne, specifically for helping to create the game’s sole and crucial try, and his replacement Ciarán Frawley for his assured goalkicking.

The manner of the win was particularly significant given it was founded on some brilliant defence in Jacques Nienaber’s first Champions Cup game since his arrival.

“Defensively we’re really proud,” added Cullen. “They have great ball carriers and you have the crowd stomping their feet and you feel like you’re the only people in the stadium, so credit to the players for standing up to that. And credit to the blue army for welcoming us in off the bus.”

Will Connors had been a surprise pick for what was his second start in the Champions Cup, and first since the quarter-final defeat at an empty Aviva in the rearranged quarter-final in September 2020. But his selection was totally vindicated.

Connors made 10 tackles in a 48-minute shift that, in tandem with James Ryan and his 18 tackles, did much to negate Will Skelton before Josh van der Flier took up the slack. The excellent Ryan Baird chipped in with 13 and some athletic work in the air and, with Jamison Gibson-Park generally outkicking the combative Tawera Kerr-Barlow, also in his chasing.

Cullen added: “He added plenty of chop tackles anyway. I think some of their bigger guys were wondering where their legs had gone. That’s what he gives you – he’s unbelievably brave, Will. He gets off the line and takes guys’ legs and it’s bloody hard to keep carrying if you’ve got no legs. He was really good in that regard and then Josh when he came on adds real impact – a couple of big moments he came up with.”

In its intensity and physicality, co-captain Garry Ringrose (whom referee Matthew Carling chose to speak with rather than James Ryan after a ferocious and tempestuous start) likened it to a Test match.

“It’s a great start. We knew it was going to take a whole lot of us to come over here and try to get a result. I thought everyone dug in deep and we managed to fall on the right side of it,” said Ringrose.

“You see the supporters at the end absolutely drenched, a couple of our parents and family who came over, it’s nice to be able to see smiles on their faces despite the wet and cold. It’s a good feeling after.

“The weather narrows the game up a little bit, which maybe makes it a bit easier defensively and trickier in attack. You don’t want the ball as much but mentally and physically it is up there with Test rugby, yeah.”

For La Rochelle, this was a first defeat in the competition since the final against Toulouse three seasons ago, and the first at this ground in 14 ties since Exeter beat them in the opening round in 2019.

“I was more just frustrated with the lack of capacity to control the ball off a maul near the line,” said Ronan O’Gara when asked if he had seen a different side of Leinster, especially in the last 10 minutes.

“With the way that’s refereed, if we can get a strong base then usually with the brute force we have, that ends up behind the line whether it’s held up or a try is up to someone else’s decision.

“But I don’t think so. I think they’re an impressive team. What was crucial tonight was getting the lead. I was disappointed how soft their try was. I don’t think you should be able to do out the back, long pass, long pass to score.

“It’s been a long time since we haven’t scored a try here,” he added, lamenting key moments of inaccuracy, but they certainly had enough penalty opportunities to win the game, and now face a journey by a Monday morning long haul series of three flights from Bordeaux to Paris to Johannesburg to Cape Town and a six-day turnaround before facing the Stormers, who rested their frontliners when losing in Leicester on Saturday.

“If we were to win the game, I don’t think we would have robbed it,” said O’Gara. “But the better team did win and I’m just saying that we hopefully have simple fixes as to why we were inaccurate at key stages. But it’s still very disappointing.”

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times