Leinster favourites as O’Gara and Sexton to renew rivalry

Leinster fans face a difficult and expensive challenge in supporting their team

Leinster will be favourites to earn a coveted fifth star against La Rochelle in the final of the Heineken Champions Cup at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseilles in just under a fortnight, on Saturday May 28th (kick-off 5.45pm local time/4.45pm Irish) despite Ronan O'Gara's team beating them at the semi-final stage last season.

La Rochelle came through a tense semi-final against Racing 92 by 20-13 in searing heat of 28 degrees in Lens on Sunday, meaning O'Gara and Johnny Sexton will renew acquaintances in their rivalry and friendship.

"I missed out in the semi-final last year against him," Sexton pointed out after Leinster's 40-17 dissection of outgoing champions Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

“Look, he has done really well with La Rochelle, he has built a team there now and they will be hurting,” said Sexton, in reference to La Rochelle’s desire to atone for losing last season’s final 22-17 in Twickenham.

"They will be doing everything they can. It's going to be an incredibly tough game. They are two of the best sides in France, them and Toulouse, and we're going to have to be at our very best to get the win."

Although Sexton, like Cian Healy, has played in four winning finals, and another seven were involved in Bilbao, all but six of last Saturday's match-day squad have suffered some pain in the last three seasons, something Sexton believes has made them better equipped to go all the way, specifically "that experience" of losing the 2019 final in Newcastle.

“We’ve been desperate to get back here to try and right that wrong - not wrong, but right that occasion. We just feel we didn’t get our best performance out there on the day, and obviously Saracens were an incredible team.

“But I think the guys just have more experiences over the last few years. The calibre of player that we have now, you look at our pack and how good they are and dynamic they are. So yeah I think our squad is different now. I think we can rely on our second/third choice players better than we could in 2019.”

Injury

Unfortunately for Will Skelton and La Rochelle, but helpfully for Leinster, the giant Australian lock who was so influential in the 2019 final and in last season’s semi-final is unlikely to feature in a fortnight. Last week O’Gara said Skelton probably wouldn’t play again this season due to a calf injury.

Leinster will be fretting over Tadhg Furlong, who was forced off in the 17th minute of the victory over Toulouse with a leg injury, as well as the in-form James Lowe, who sustained a shin injury in the game's last play, and Rónan Kelleher, who failed an HIA and will undergo the return to play protocols.

"Tadhg seems to be OK there now," said Leo Cullen in the immediate aftermath of the semi-final, adding Lowe's injury "doesn't seem to be too serious".

The likelihood is that this trio, along with the rest of Saturday's starting XV at least, would have been rested anyway for Leinster's URC game against Munster at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 7.15pm).

Cullen expressed the hope that ala the final in Bilbao four seasons ago and last Saturday there will be another sea of blue in the Stade Vélodrome.

However, Leinster fans who haven’t gambled on booking flights, hotels and tickets will face a difficult and very expensive challenge in supporting their team in the final, for a myriad of reasons.

Firstly, there is a general shortage of aircraft, airlines and airports are struggling with staffing levels in light of the pandemic and, of course, Liverpool are playing Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League final on the same evening in Paris (kick-off 9pm local time), and thousands of their Irish-based fans have already booked various routes to France.

Last season’s final was scheduled to take place in Marseilles before being moved to Twickenham, with the choice of the 67,000-capacity Stade Vélodrome being put back a year. Hence over 53,000 tickets have already been sold for the final, and each of the finalists will receive an allocation of 3,200 tickets apiece.

Even before the semi-final, return flights to Marseilles and even Lyon, who are now in the Challenge Cup final against Toulon the night before, were costing in the region of €600-700. It is expected that Ryanair and Aer Lingus might put on an additional flight today.

Paddy Baird, of Killester Travel, anticipates having about 350 supporters on two aircraft for the final, but added: "Normally we would take about 1,000 fans, so we're down to a third of what we usually bring and that will be the same for the other tour operators.

“Many supporters will try to make their own way but having the Champions Cup and Champions League final on the same day in the same country doesn’t help.”

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