Leinster were thumped, no two ways about it.
The curiously palindromic scoreline of 32-23 did not flatter the hosts. There are a few reasons why this happened (the massive Rochelle pack apart) swimming around my head.
Les Rochelais are used to playing in hot and sunny conditions, it was about 20/25 degrees; some pundits told us before the match that they wouldn’t last the pace, but it looked very much like Leinster were the ones suffering as half-time came. Then, as usual, when they have the choice, Rochelle played into the sun in the first half.
Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster had done their homework, and Leinster bombarded the home team, particularly the bewildered Dillon Leyds, with mortar bombs coming out of the sun, and they were unlucky the dividend wasn’t greater. In the second half, with the dropping sun on their backs, La Rochelle were well advantaged.
Next up is the awful Pro14 - Leinster are never challenged, never a tough fixture in sight. Meanwhile, their opponents hone their skills, and game plan, in a league which is as pressurised and as tough as it gets.
In a remarkable old fashioned rugby moment, La Rochelle supporters waiting outside the ground gave a sustained rousing send off to Leinster
Final point is that La Rochelle were just damn better, damn it. Chapeaux to Ronan O’Gara, and the departing Jonno Gibbes.
Thankfully, much quieter than he is in the English Premiership, referee Matt Carley brought along his compass and protactor, and was over precise. He can probably, and maybe successfully, argue that most decisions were technically correct. But, there’s a lot more to refereeing than blowing the whistle, the game needs to breathe. I’ll also accept that there were many stoppages and player errors which, of course, weren’t down to him.
Slide rule accuracy
Referees need to find a balance, but Carley didn’t seem too interested in looking for it, preferring slide rule accuracy. Oh, and by the way, the yellow card to James Lowe was an absolutely over the top decision. Also, was Tadhg Furlong fortunate his ‘elbow’ wasn’t more precisely examined?
In a remarkable old fashioned rugby moment, La Rochelle supporters waiting outside the ground gave a sustained rousing send off to Leinster as the team boarded its bus.
Toulouse came through a dour battle against Bordeaux-Begles, played for the most part in a downpour. The difference between the teams being? You’ve guessed it, French scrumhalf Antoine Dupont. Englishman Wayne Barnes held the whistle and he was, well, just like Wayne Barnes. He speaks an interesting brand of Franglais, and was determined to let us hear it. I’ll address this whole irritating communication issue another time, so I’ll not dwell on it now.
Barnes has made a few unusual errors in recent times and this time around he produced an unnecessary yellow card to Bordeaux’s Cameron Woki. The player had jumped and stretched high, one-handed, for the ball. He tried to bat it back, made a hash of things, and the ball went forward. Deliberate knock-on. Ah c’mon; severe. Let’s not risk deciding matches with that sort of call.
It was exciting stuff at Welford Road and a lot of the credit must go to Leicester. Disappointingly, Ulster took their collective feet off the pedal far too early, instead of keeping the throttle wide open. They were a man down after 15 minutes when Tom Youngs saw yellow. Three offences in the same move as Ulster attacked led to the referee, Pascale Gauzere, reaching to his pocket. And correctly so. There was no warning needed. It was an excellent decision.
Shortly afterwards, Gauzere must have been very close to dispatching George Ford to the bin; Leicester would, probably should, have been reduced to 13. That apart, if Warren Gatland hasn’t finalised his Lions 10s, then Ford has put his hand up with a masterful performance.
The second half saw the home team ramp things up with 20 unanswered points and a fully merited eventual win, 33-24, with 14 of Ulster’s total coming when Youngs was in the bin.
Perhaps, though, the most crucial moment came just before half-time. A penalty was entrusted to Billy Burns when it was 17-6 to Ulster. Very similar to when he kicked the ball dead in Cardiff, this time it didn’t even reach touch. Points from a lineout then might have made Leicester’s task impossible. Who’d be a coach?
World Rugby must move quickly for safety reasons on this one, and outlaw it without delay. It's a simple fix
Now, here’s an important health and safety warning.
The growing practice of ‘latchers’ and ‘latching’ has to be addressed. While it sounds like something from the good old crime days in Soho, it’s a lot more serious - the growing practice of a player latching (joining) onto a ball-carrying team mate and, bound together, they charge into the defensive line as one lethal unit.
Let’s put it into context: the Lions will, hopefully, soon play South Africa. Imagine Johnny Sexton is in that defensive line, Faf de Klerk pops the ball up to a charging Eben Etzebeth, immediately Thomas du Toit latches onto Etzebeth and they rampage into their target. The combined weight of that unit will be, wait for it … 245kgs. Sexton, all of 90kgs, will probably not return from the subsequent HIA.
In Bath v Montpellier at the weekend, referee Andrew Brace penalised a defender for tackling the latcher, not the ball carrier. How can that be right? Choose the wrong part of that massive unit and you get pinged. It was not an easy match, but Brace comes out with a lot more credits than debits. There seems to be no other contender for the Challenge Cup final, but he deserves it in any case.
World Rugby must move quickly for safety reasons on this one, and outlaw it without delay. It’s a simple fix: “a team-mate cannot bind onto a ball carrier until the ball carrier has made contact with an opponent.” If not, it’s also coming to the next schools rugby matches to be played.
Parents, already very worried, may not let their children out the door.
P.S: For those of you who didn’t watch the rerun of Brian O’Driscoll’s opus, Shoulder to Shoulder, about rugby during the Troubles, go immediately to RTÉ Player. It is mesmerising.