Oui, Leinster regrette beaucoup as La Rochelle head for all-French final
Leo Cullen’s men no match for relentless attack and strength of Ronan O’Gara’s side
Leinster’s Ross Byrne dejected after their 32-23 loss to La Rochelle in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final at Stade Marcel Deflandre on Sunday. Photograph: Manuel Blondeau/Inpho
So, no five-star Heineken Champions Cup final after all, rather a sixth all-French final after La Rochelle thoroughly eclipsed Leinster to earn a decider against the other four-time champions at Twickenham three weeks hence.
The quarantine on arrival home will be all the grimmer now.
Leinster were off-colour, but La Rochelle’s 32-23 win under bright sunshine in the Stade Marcel Deflandre on Sunday was so convincing that in its immediate aftermath a fifth star looked further away than was the case after Saracens ended those ambitions in the last two seasons.
“Well, the first one was very hard to get, we had to wait a long time for the first one,” Leo Cullen pointed out in reference to the breakthrough triumph of 2009.
“It’s going to be fascinating to watch,” he added in reference to the final on May 22nd, albeit it will also no doubt be a hard watch for him. “Toulouse are going for their fifth against La Rochelle, it would have been great to be there at Twickenham with some supporters.
“It’s always a challenge, that’s the amazing thing about the tournament. People expect that you’re going to roll up and it’ll happen for you, but you get a sense of the atmosphere in the town and how much it means to people here. That’s great, that was us at one point in time trying to go for our first win.
“We’ll keep battling away, working on our game and make sure we’re better. Bring some more guys through and give them an understanding of what’s involved.
“When you go through some of the pain, you get the experience of what it’s like. It’s making sure when we get this opportunity again, we’re better. We need to be better and get better.”
Jono Gibbes paid tribute to Ronan O’Gara for designing the La Rochelle system which attacks the ball, be it flying off the line, hammering the carrier, counter-rucking or picking their moments at the breakdown.
Gibbes lamented the concession of two tries but, in truth, between those ninth- and 77th-minute scores by Tadhg Furlong and Ross Byrne, Leinster were made to look quite blunt against a team which has conceded 10 tries less than any other side in the Top 14 this season.
Mauls, scrums or in the tackle, La Rochelle bossed Leinster the more the game went on through their big men, Uini Atonio, Grégory Alldritt and Will Skelton especially. Given an armchair ride, their sniping scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Ihaia West, mixing things up with chips and kick passes, played with more variety than Luke McGrath and Ross Byrne, who wilted under ferocious pressure. Outside them, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour, for all their clever footwork, were in loaves and fishes territory.
Already missing three international back-rowers, Leinster were further depowered by the loss of Rhys Ruddock halfway through due to a calf strain.
While acknowledging Ruddock’s loss, Cullen admitted: “But it’s never one thing in these games. It’s lots of little things and there’s lots of little things that we’ll look back on with great regret I think over the course of this game.
“A huge amount of effort has gone into this season thus far. It continues to roll on,” he said, and, true to type, mentioned next week’s game against Connacht in the Rainbow Cup. That’ll be a harder sell now.
While Scott Fardy might have been a better bet off the bench at that juncture, as Skelton, Victor Vito et al made more and more inroads, many Leinster supporters will have pined for a Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn or Rocky Elsom figure who contributed to the previous four stars.
Recalling how he first came across Skelton while observing the Waratahs at work, and the damage he caused Leinster in the final with Saracens two seasons ago, Cullen admitted: “Yeah, he’s a huge man and can cause a lot of damage.
“I thought we contained those guys well in the first half but it was just off the back of some penalties and field position when they get a bit of a roll on and a couple of guys slipped off a few tackles, particularly on Will Skelton.
“The game at this level can be quite simple, once you get on the front foot with momentum, and I thought the half backs controlled the game well for La Rochelle.”
Gibbes played down the importance of his squad’s greater infusion of foreign players.
“Leinster have got 21 out of 23 and I guarantee you those are good guys and good people. They just happen to be born in Leinster and that works for them.
“The best environments I have been in, its not about that. It’s about whether you want to be here and you want to contribute to make the place better and leave it in a better place after you’re gone.
“I was lucky enough to work in Clermont and that was the experience I had there. I’ve already spoken about the experience that I had at Leinster and it came back to quality people again. That’s what we started here. We moved out some people that didn’t have the ambition and didn’t want to contribute. We’ve started moving in the right direction.”
La Rochelle are now just one game away from their first trophy, and Cullen was struck by their palpable desire, as reflected in the congregation of home supporters outside the ground beforehand despite pleas by the club not to do so.
“You see that sea of supporters and what it means to the club and to the town here. We need to understand that because we need to bottle up that kind of pain that certain people are feeling inside there.
“A huge amount of players experience a semi-final in Europe for the first time so we just need to be better for the next opportunity or next window when we get to this stage of the competition because it’s so hard winning away in France in a semi-final but it’s something that we have done in the past.
“Everything’s really deflated in there right now.”
Yep, there was something more than a little sobering and deflating about this one.