Leinster face a formidable foe in semi-final against La Rochelle

Leo Cullen’s men will likely meet Toulouse in final if they can beat Ronan O’Gara’s side

Leinster’s Jack Conan, James Tracy and Ed Byrne celebrate winning a penalty in the Champions Cup quarter-final between Exeter Chiefs and Leinster at Sandy Park, Exeter on Saturday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Leinster’s Jack Conan, James Tracy and Ed Byrne celebrate winning a penalty in the Champions Cup quarter-final between Exeter Chiefs and Leinster at Sandy Park, Exeter on Saturday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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On balance, La Rochelle away is probably the second-toughest semi-final draw Leinster could have faced other than Toulouse away. Hence, in all probability, if Leo Cullen’s men are to claim their fifth Heineken Champions Cup, they will need to beat both.

The other four-time winners, Toulouse, will host Bordeaux-Bègles in the other semi-final after the pair completed tryless quarter-final wins over Clermont and Racing 92 thanks to seven and eight penalties apiece by the French outhalves Romain Ntamack and Mathieu Jalibert.

Meanwhile, in the European Challenge Cup, Ulster were drawn away to an English team for the third round in a row when pitted against Leicester at Welford Road. Bath will be at home to Montpellier in the other semi-final.

The semi-finals of both competitions will be played in three weeks’ time, on the weekend of April 30th/May 1st/2nd.

A little unnervingly, La Rochelle’s director of rugby, Jono Gibbes, was Leinster’s forwards coach for six seasons from 2008 to 2014 when they won the first three of their four European Cups.

Furthermore, of course, their head coach is Ronan O’Gara, and the mixture of forward power and utilisation of pace with some clever strike plays were all in evidence in their six-try rout of Sale on Saturday.

Destined

The moment Leinster sealed their 12th semi-final (they’ve won five and lost six to date) with their superb 34-22 win over the reigning champions Exeter at Sandy Park on Saturday, they were destined to face one of the five remaining Top 14 sides as things then stood.

“That’s the thing that we discussed since the end of my playing time with the emergence of Toulon, and then in the very early days Toulouse had such a strong impact with the players they had and the budget and resources and all the rest,” said Leo Cullen.

“We had to try and come up with a model that was going to be competitive and not just for a short time but a longer period of time. The resources the French teams have – they’re not going away, are they? They’ve signed a big TV deal again so they are locked and loaded in many ways,” he added, in reference to the recently agreed new four-year deal with Canal+ worth €113.6 million annually.

La Rochelle’s players celebrate scoring a try during the Champions Cup quarter-final match between La Rochelle and Sale Sharks at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in La Rochelle. Photograph: Xavier Leoty/AFP via Getty Images
La Rochelle’s players celebrate scoring a try during the Champions Cup quarter-final match between La Rochelle and Sale Sharks at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in La Rochelle. Photograph: Xavier Leoty/AFP via Getty Images
The cloud of Covid hangs over the remainder of a tournament already punctuated by cancellations and forced into a restructuring

Speaking after the draw, Cullen said: “Their win on Saturday against a very good Sale side was impressive and we have a big three weeks of preparation ahead of us now. Obviously Ronan and Jono, two men we know very well, have been building a great side there and it will be a huge challenge going there and winning in France. But this is where we want to be. Competing against the very best sides in Europe and we very much look forward to the challenge of the coming three weeks and building towards that game.”

First meeting

It will be a first meeting between the two, with La Rochelle competing in only their third Champions Cup and first semi-final.

Each semi-final features one of the two grandees and four-time winners of the competition against clubs seeking their first Champions Cup, raising the prospect of the grandest of all finals, between Leinster and Toulouse. They have met a dozen times, with six wins apiece, but never in a final.

The cloud of Covid hangs over the remainder of a tournament already punctuated by cancellations and forced into a restructuring, specifically whether new Irish Government restrictions on travel will require Leinster to go into quarantine for 14 days on returning to this country from France.

A decision will be made on Monday as to whether the French women’s team will be granted exemption from quarantining in order to fulfil their Six Nations game against Ireland next Saturday at Energia Park (kick-off 2.15pm).

Given the women’s team is semi-professional, were they afforded an exemption, it would seem inevitable therefore that the same would apply for the Champions Cup semi-final in three weeks’ time.

In any event, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) will on Monday begin seeking clarification from the Government through the IRFU regarding the semi-finals, and the Department of Sport on Sunday night said: “Engagements are ongoing between Government departments to develop options to facilitate sporting activity involving travel to/from countries on the mandatory quarantine list.”

Ever-volatile

Further evidence of this ever-volatile landscape is that reports emanating from South Africa suggest, not surprisingly, the Rainbow Cup will not go ahead as scheduled, or at any rate not with the four South African super rugby franchises.

The competition is due to commence in two weeks’ time, with derbies in each of the participating countries including Leinster-Munster and Ulster-Connacht, but reports in South Africa say their franchises have been told to suspend their visa applications last Friday.

South Africa’s four franchises were due to base themselves in Bristol for the duration of the “away” leg of the Rainbow Cup, but the English government reportedly refused their players permission to travel.

However, The Irish Times has learned that the Rainbow Cup remains a possibility, as conversations continue with relevant governments regarding new bases for the South African teams.

Both the Lions tour to South Africa and Ireland’s tour to Fiji also remain possibilities as well, even though the latter remains very doubtful. The Irish Times has also learned that the IRFU have not granted Andy Farrell permission to be part of Warren Gatland’s coaching ticket for the third Lions tour in succession. Gatland will unveil his coaching ticket on Tuesday morning.

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