La Rochelle unfamiliar foes but Leinster are semi-final veterans

This is the first ever meeting between Ronan O’Gara’s French side and four-time winners

Champions Cup semi-final: La Rochelle v Leinster. Venue: Stade Marcel Deflandre. Kick-off: Sunday, 4pm local time/3pm Irish. On TV: Live on BT Sport.

Although merit-based and thus the antithesis of a Super League this competition has long since established its own elite. That’s partly what gives this semi-final its rare sense of novelty value and intrigue.

La Rochelle are not only debutants at this stage but are also meeting Leinster for the first time ever. Usually, the last four have invariably been here before and sometimes, ala two years ago, they were all former winners.

The other newcomers, Bordeaux-Begles, also face the other four-time winners Toulouse in Saturday’s first semi-final. Hence, in addition to the possibility of the competition’s two most decorated clubs competing for a fifth star in front of a projected 10,000 supporters at Twickenham on May 22nd, there’s also scope for two first-time finalists.


In Lenster’s 11 previous semi-finals the opposition were also very familiar foes. Compounding this s a first trek to the Stade Marcel-Deflandre.

“It’s a slightly unusual dynamic, because we haven’t really experienced it. You can show guys all the footage you want,” admitted Leo Cullen, who’s been to Ile de Ré but had to cancel aholiday there this summer.

“Yeah, it was a dream, a pipe dream.”

Previously packed to capacity for 43 consecutive home matches, increasingly in the dozen games behind closed doors the home supporters have gathered outside, prompting an appeal by the club for them not to do so tomorrow.

Exeter also showed last season that a lack of pedigree - one quarter-final in six previous attempts - is not necessarily a bar to winning the tournament outright.

Admittedly, La Rochelle have never won a domestic championship and yet there is something about them, and not just the coaching of Jono Gibbes and Ronan O'Gara, which suggests this is more a spur than a hindrance.

“That’s something we spoke about as a team right from the get-go,” admitted their former All Blacks number eight and two-time World Cup winner Victor Vito.

“La Rochelle have won nothing. Even when we came into the Top 14 it’s not like we came having won the Pro D2, it was a barrage final between second and third to make it in. So we would love to be the first team to bring in silverware. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves but that is the goal.”

Perhaps its novelty value contributed to the focus on the rival coaches, but come 3pm tomorrow, as Cullen noted with a chuckle: “It’s definitely all about the players.

“None of us are going to kick a ball or make a tackle or throw a pass or do anything from the stands.”

Furthermore, compile a composite starting XV or 23 and one could easily come up with a fairly evenly split team.

Whereas Johnny Sexton, who won't be travelling with the team, is ruled out, Ihaia West, who suffered a shoulder injury in the win over Lyon a fortnight ago, has recovered to start. West is one of those players who, if he starts strongly, will usually go on to have a good game.

Gibbes’ only alteration from the quarter-final win over Sale is the former South African Under-20 World Cup winning captain Wiaan Liebenburg at openside ahead of the more dynamic ball carrying of Kevin Gourdon. Liebenberg, who was very good in their win over Lyon, is extremely aggressive in the tackle and is good over the ball. He’s also a hard, straight ball carrier, and, like Vito and Grégory Alldritt, can be used effectively on the edges.

Ross Byrne’s defence hasn’t always been his strong point but against Exeter he seemed to relish the physical work, making nine tackles and missing none. He can safely anticipate some traffic down his channel early on.

With that in mind, one imagines Leinster will have Josh van der Flier or Rhys Ruddock stationed in close proximity. A potential problem for Leinster is that Robbie Henshaw stands tight to protect his outhalf, as was the case when Exeter scored their first try in the quarter-final.

Given Leinster’s rush defence, almost certainly West will try a little chip over the top, which he’s very good at, with the centres and Brice Dulin flat to the line.

With big rumblers like Aldritt, Will Skelton and Levani Botia, Leinster will also have a low tackle focus.

Leinster’s best hopes rest in keeping the ball in play, with plenty of rucks, and generating a high tempo. A slow, set-piece, mauling game, is more likely to suit La Rochelle.

It’s unusual that a nice warm sunny day (15 degrees) in France would be more suitable for an Irish team, but that is the forecast.

Devin Toner’s selection adds security given La Rochelle’s lineout/maul defence. Leinster might look to come back to the short side, if they set up a maul or a ruck infield off a lineout, as that’s where Uini Atonio and Skelton, all combined 46 stone of them, will still normally be stationed.

As with West there’ll be scope for Byrne to keep La Rochelle honest with chips over the top, something Leinster missed opportunities to do last week, as well as finding space through the hands on the edges.

The welcome return of Garry Ringrose affords the option of making La Rochelle turn with his kicking game. They'll also back their kick-chase through Robbie Henshaw and co rather than put the ball off the park. Keep les maritimes moving, and then, with the ball, play at a tempo that La Rochelle can't live with, albeit not many teams have managed that this season.

Ultimately, Leinster’s bench might be stronger, especially in the frontrow and they do have that collective savvy and knock-out experience to stay calm in the critical moments to make, and execute, the right decisions.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, Ryan Baird, Rowan Osborne, Ciarán Frawley, Rory O'Loughlin.

LA ROCHELLE: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Levani Botia, Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Tawera Kerr Barlow; Reda Wardi, Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio, Romain Sazy (capt), Will Skelton, Grégory Alldritt, Wiaan Liebenberg, Victor Vito. Replacements: Facundo Bosch, Dany Priso, Arthur Joly, Thomas Lavault, Kevin Gourdon, Arthur Retiere, Jules Plisson, Pierre Aguillon.

Referee: Matthew Carley (England)

AR1: Andrew Jackson (England)

AR2: Wayne Falla (England)

TMO: Ian Tempest (England)

Previous meetings: None.

Results so far: La Rochelle - W 13-8 v Edinburgh (a), w/o v Bath (h), W 27-16 v Gloucester (a), W 45-21 v Sale (h). Leinster - W 35-14 v Montpellier (a), W 35-19 v Northampton (h), w/o v Toulon, W 34-22 v Exeter (a).

Leading try scorers: La Rochelle - Raymond Rhule 3, Dillyn Leyds, Geoffrey Doumayrou 2 each. Leinster - Dave Kearney, JordanLarmour 2 each.

Leading points scorers: La Rochelle - Ihaia West 26. Ross Byrne 37.

Betting (Paddy Power): 9/5 La Rochelle, 19/1 Draw, 4/9. Handicap odds (La Rochelle +6pts) Evens La Rochelle, 22/1 Draw, Evens Leinster.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times