As Robin McBryde struggled to describe La Rochelle without repeating himself, he couldn’t help but chuckle. Up front especially, the Leinster forwards coach simply kept describing them as ‘massive’ or, failing that ‘big’. There were no other words.
He cited the examples of Uini Atonio and Will Skelton. Both were born in New Zealand of Samoan extraction. Atonio, tagged 'the man mountain/piano' by former French hooker Benjamin Kayser, has become the heart and soul of La Rochelle since joining them a decade ago, captaining them at 22 in the Pro D2, playing 223 games for them and 47 times for France.
Skelton, who moved to Australia as a child, won 18 caps for the Wallabies before taking his enormous frame to Saracens – he was a human wrecking ball in the final against Leinster two seasons ago – and since the start of this season to La Rochelle.
Atonio weighs 24 stone, or 152kg give or take, and Skelton 22 stone, or 140kg. No wonder McBryde simply laughs. But there’s only one thing to do with man mountains.
“They like to play the game at their tempo so we’ve got to try and get that ball in play up a little bit from what it is,” said McBryde. “I’m not sure what the average is, I think it’s in the high 20s, whereas we would be far more comfortable if we could push that ball in play time up to 40 minutes just to get them blowing a little bit, to challenge them fitness-wise.
“If we can do that, we’re going to ask different types of questions of them. Notoriously, the game in France is slow, from set-piece to set-piece, with high bursts of intensity and they have the players to do that. Any loose ball in the turnover, they just latch on to it straight away and they’ve multiple threats in behind.
“We’ve got to try and take them out of that comfort zone and try and get the ball in play up. Exeter, along with ourselves, entered into the same kind of game really which was great to watch. It was good to come out on top, but the threat is going to be a little bit different this week. It’s not going to be multi-phase, I think it’s going to be more of a power-based game.
“The more set-piece orientated it is, and the lower the ball in play time, the more it’s going to suit La Rochelle. Hopefully we can keep the ball alive, be accurate, be comfortable playing with the ball and ask different questions of them.”
As the Brive forwards coach James Coughlan has highlighted in these pages, La Rochelle's defensive lineout system is a little different from most other teams. The aforementioned Atonio and Skelton defend at the front and, as he put it, "just rip the hell out of a maul, while their jumpers are at the back. This allows their backrowers to shoot up because most teams will take free ball at the front."
McBryde made the same point.
“They’ve got a very effective way of defending the lineout, with Atonio and Skelton really attacking the front seam of any lineout drive that you try. They’ve got great line speed out the back of the lineout, with the backrow just flying off the line, putting the first receiver under a lot of pressure.”
This also protects La Rochelle’s outhalf and, of course, the physical challenge also extends to the scrum, where Skelton packs down behind Atonio.
“Because they’re so big, your scrum is going to be under pressure so you’re going to have to be really smart about where you pick your battles there.”
Then there’s the collisions.
“They play front-foot rugby very well so that gainline dominance is going to be huge. Defensively, we’re going to have to meet them physically and stop them gaining any sort of momentum.”
Leinster have won five and lost six of their semi-finals to date, losing three of four in France, the most recent of which was to Clermont in Lyon four seasons ago, when their ex forwards coach Jono Gibbes was in the opposition corner, as he will be again on Sunday.
Noting how Leinster will apply unrelenting pressure for fully 80 minutes, Gibbes has speculated that he might keep some of his normal frontliners in reserve, in the belief that Sunday’s semi-final will, more than ever, be a 23-man effort.
“Yes definitely,” concurred McBryde. “We’ve looked at the squad, the rotations that they’ve got, they’ve got quality throughout really and they’ve got big men coming on for big men. I can’t stress that enough really, it’s size for size. That’s the thing we haven’t got here really.”
Yet McBryde hailed the impact of the Leinster bench against Exeter, citing key lineout steals by Ryan Baird, which led to Leinster's second try, and Ross Molony.
“It’s going to be even more important, with the nature of the game, and the quality and depth that they have. It’s going to be vitally important.”