If Leinster are to win ‘they will have to go through us’, say La Rochelle

Home advantage and Jacques Nienaber factor may swing Champions Cup tie home side’s way in a likely titanic tussle

Champions Cup quarter-final preview: Leinster v La Rochelle, Saturday, Aviva Stadium, 5.30pm (Live on RTÉ and TNT Sport)

There are Champions Cup quarter-finals and then, well, there are Champions Cup quarter-finals! No other match-up in European club rugby in no other city could become a 50,000 sell-out this week. That says it all really.

Out of nowhere, in just four years, has sprang a rivalry to equal anything in this competition’s 28-year history. Last May, they broke new ground when providing the same final pairing for the second year in succession.

Now Leinster and La Rochelle take it to another level by meeting for the fourth season in succession in the knock-out stages, following the Covid-affected semi-final three seasons ago at an empty Stade Deflandre, the final in Marseille two seasons ago and last May’s decider here.

That cut Leinster the deepest, but the arrival of Jacques Nienaber, the emergence of Joe McCarthy and that rain-drenched 16-9 pool win in La Rochelle last December gives Leinster belief that they can atone for the French outfit ending their dreams of a cherished fifth star three years running.


There have been several flashpoints on and off the pitch, so inevitably there’s a degree of enmity between the two. Revelling in his role as agent provocateur, after the back-to-back champions played their get-out-of-jail card in Cape Town, Ronan O’Gara had them decamp to his home city for the week.

Logistically, it reduced the travel, and afforded La Rochelle a second week of team bonding. In milking Cork’s bonhomie for one of their favourite sons (and Munster antipathy toward Leinster?), La Rochelle trained in his old Constitution stamping ground at Temple Hill before mounting an insurrection to Dublin from Leeside. Cheeky and clever.

So then, this isn’t just war. This is, it seems, now civil war as well.

Amid the calm before the storm in an empty Aviva for the Friday’s captain’s runs, although smiling, tellingly Leo Cullen remarked of the rivalry: “There seems to be a bit of a Cork bandwagon. The mafia have jumped on to the bandwagon along with La Rochelle. It’s great, isn’t it? That’s what sport needs, doesn’t it, and I’m glad that we’re a part of it.”

Cullen also said: “We’re the only Irish team in the competition and you’d love if all of Ireland got behind you. But that’s not the way it works, as we know. But we’re the last man standing of the Irish provinces.”

This prompted one of Cullen’s almost annual discourses concerning the different models in Ireland compared to the top 14, with its millionaires and in some cases billionaires, and the scale of the challenge thus facing Leinster.

A tad non-plussed to be asked about Peter O’Mahony’s new contract, Cullen noted that O’Gara would be following him into the Aviva media room. “They were being hosted down in Cork Con this week. Donal Lenihan organised a few things for them this week so maybe ask the lads.”

Yep, it’s civil war all right. But O’Gara’s move to Cork was also designed to reignite their season.

“The weather was miserable but Con were great, Fota was great,” he said. “We got out a bit. We got to mingle with the Cork public. It was just really refreshing, without sounding cocky obviously, just to see that you mean something to them and that was very, very nice from a personal point of view.”

“We’ve not been as cohesive as we’d like to be,” said O’Gara, specifically of his backs. “But I think we can hopefully skip a few steps by getting a good buzz from arriving in an unbelievable stadium with a full house and an unbelievably good sod that will hopefully bring back all the good memories of last May.”

O’Gara likened it to a Test match, and as Uini Atonio warned, in that surprisingly soft voice of his: “If they [Leinster] want to win that trophy they will have to go through us.”

Last week’s latest comeback, from 16-0 down, was a reminder of their unwavering mental strength and close-range power game, which remains the biggest threat to Leinster. Hence, more even than most games, discipline in the middle third will likely be critical.

La Rochelle’s frontrow stocks have also been de-powered by the loss of loosehead Reda Wardi, hooker Pierre Bourgarit and Georges Henri Colombe, who scored last May’s decisive try off the bench, albeit they have signed the Wallabies’ hooker Tolu Latu and have two recent under-20 World Cup winning loose-heads in Louis Penverne and Alexandre Kaddouri.

They’ve also lost fullback Brice Dulin, whom O’Gara described as his rock, due to a knee injury, so Teddy Thomas is restored, with Dillyn Leyds shifting to fullback.

Nienaber’s hand is all over Leinster’s punchy selection. Jason Jenkins’ is restored alongside Joe McCarthy to meet the brute force of Leinster’s kryptonite, Will Skelton, and so is Will Connors.

“I think he’s the best chop tackler in the game that I’ve come across,” said Cullen of Connors, who demonstrated this in his only previous Champions Cup start, namely that December pool win.

Ross Molony and Josh van der Flier drop to a reconfigured 6-2 bench (à la La Rochelle, as it were) with Michael Milne chosen ahead of Cian Healy. Luke McGrath is also restored, with Ben Murphy and Harry Byrne missing out.

Granted James Ryan — whose departure after half an hour was a huge turning point in May — and Garry Ringrose are significant losses. But in addition to last December’s win, nine of this Leinster XV and 14 of the 23 were part of Ireland’s resounding 38-17 win in Marseille.

That, home advantage and the Nienaber factor, may swing what is liable to be another titanic tussle Leinster’s way.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Jamie Osborne, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Joe McCarthy, Jason Jenkins, Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Caelan Doris (Capt). Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Michael Milne, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ross Molony, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Ciarán Frawley, Josh van der Flier.

Stade Rochelais: Dillyn Leyds; Jack Nowell, UJ Seuteni, Jonathan Danty, Teddy Thomas; Antoine Hastoy, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Louis Penverne, Tolu Latu, Uini Atonio, Ultan Dillane, Will Skelton, Judicael Cancoriet, Levani Botia, Grégory Alldritt (Capt). Replacements: Quentin Lespiaucq, Alexandre Kaddouri, Joel Sclavi, Thomas Lavault, Paul Boudehent, Yoan Tanga, Teddy Iribaren, Ihaia West.

Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times