Gerry Thornley: Gap between French sides and the rest is a worrying trend

La Rochelle’s budget only mid-table in the Top 14 but it’s a least double that of Leinster

Lest the IRFU forget, Leinster would never have won their first Champions Cup without Isa Nacewa, Chris Whitaker, Stan Wright and Rocky Elsom. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

Lest the IRFU forget, Leinster would never have won their first Champions Cup without Isa Nacewa, Chris Whitaker, Stan Wright and Rocky Elsom. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

 

In the fallout from Sunday’s sobering events in La Rochelle we can’t forget Leinster’s excellent display in the laquarter-final win away to Exeter. To keep the semi-final defeat in context, that quarter-final was only three weeks previously.

The only changes to the starting line-up were Ross Byrne (who played over 50 minutes in Sandy Park) replacing a sidelined Johnny Sexton along with the return from injury of James Ryan and Garry Ringrose.

Yet individually and collectively, Leinster just didn’t scale those same heights again. With just one game under their belts over the previous four weekends possibly they were a little underdone.

Furthermore, as well as Sexton, Leinster were also missing Jamison Gibson-Park, Harry Byrne, Caelan Doris, Will Connors, Dan Leavy and Max Deegan, and the absence of four international backrowers was compounded by the loss of Rhys Ruddock.

Ruddock’s sheer strength on both sides of the ball, and the effectiveness of his clearing out at the breakdown, were a feature of Leinster’s strong first half-hour and his absence was felt thereafter.

In all of this though, one cannot understate the importance of being drawn at home. This remains the competition’s greatest flaw, that so much hinges on the luck of the semi-final draw.

Were they two-legged semi-finals, as in football, who knows how differently the tournament’s history might have panned out.

Of Leinster’s dozen semi-finals they have won four of seven at home, and one of five away

Sure, Leinster would have had to go some to make up a nine-point deficit in a second leg, but who knows? Certainly if Sunday’s tie had been played at a neutral venue or in the Aviva, it would not have panned out quite the same.

Even behind closed doors, that was La Rochelle’s 12th win in 13 matches at Stade Marcel Deflandre, and they should have won the other one.

In the tournament’s 52 semi-finals there have been 37 wins by the teams who have enjoyed home city or ‘home country’ advantage, as against just 15 away wins. That represents a 71 per cent to 29 per cent split.

Of Leinster’s dozen semi-finals they have won four of seven at home, and one of five away. Against French sides Leinster have won two out of three semi-finals at home, and won just one and lost four away.

Munster have been cruelly unlucky to have just three out of 14 semi-finals at ‘home’, and one of them can be discounted as it was played in Leinster’s home city at Croke Park.

Winning ratio

All eight of their semi-finals against Top 14 sides have been on French soil. Not one of them in Ireland. They’ve won two and lost six.

All of this is particularly relevant when it comes to the French. They have had 23 home semi-finals, winning 19 and losing just four, which equates to an 82.5 per cent winning ratio.

If Leinster are as far away from winning the Heineken Champions Cup as Sunday suggested, then where does that leave the rest of the Celtic and Italians teams. Photograph: Xavier Leoty/AFP via Getty Images
If Leinster are as far away from winning the Heineken Champions Cup as Sunday suggested, then where does that leave the rest of the Celtic and Italians teams. Photograph: Xavier Leoty/AFP via Getty Images

One of those was an all-French affair in 1997-98 when Brive drew 22-all away to Toulouse but progressed on a countback of tries, which makes Munster’s memorable 31-25 win against Toulouse in Bordeaux in 2000 and Leinster’s equally epic 19-15 win over Clermont in the same city in 2012 all the more commendable.

The only other away win was also by Munster, against Castres in Béziers in 2002. Since Leinster’s win over Clermont a decade ago, French clubs have now won nine home semi-finals in a row.

By contrast, away from home, they’ve won six semi-finals and lost a dozen, equating to a 33 per cent winning ratio. That’s some difference.

One accepts Leo Cullen’s point that Leinster needed to make more of their hard-earned opportunities when, overall, they were on top in the opening half-hour or so, notably when freeing Jordan Larmour on the right hand edge and his pass inside died at the feet of Luke McGrath.

It’s probably no coincidence that Leinster’s best performance in Europe over the last two seasons came in the fall-out of a Six Nations campaign

Generally, their work in contact and recycling was pretty effective, but there had been warning signs that La Rochelle had more ballast across the gain line and through their maul.

Leinster and the Irish sides have always been punching above their weight. They began the game with 15 Irish internationals, 13 produced by their own academy, and all but Scott Fardy in their ‘23’ were home-grown.

Wallaby wrecking ball

By contrast, La Rochelle were heavily resourced by a Wallaby wrecking ball in the second-row, a two-time World Cup-winning All Black and an South African Under-20 World Cup-winning captain in the back-row, a World Cup-winning, 29-times capped All Blacks scrum-half, a Maori All Black out-half, a brilliant Fijian inside centre, and two Springboks wingers. They also had a Pumas hooker on the bench.

Lest the IRFU forget, Leinster would never have won their first Champions Cup without Isa Nacewa, Chris Whitaker, Stan Wright and Rocky Elsom.

Nacewa, Heinke van der Merwe, Wright and Nathan Hines were all part of the 2011 triumph, and again for the 2012 win save for Brad Thorn replacing Hines, with Nacewa, Gibson-Park and Fardy contributors to the 2018 success.

The La Rochelle budget for the 2020-21 season was reduced, like all other Top 14 club bar modest increases at Toulon and Agen, while maintained the same at Racing 92. La Rochelle’s budget was reduced by €3.1m to €25.9m, and to put this further into context, this is the eighth highest in the Top 14 this season.

Leinster’s budget, even supplemented by the IRFU’s central contract and subsidizing of provincial contracts, would be less than half that.

It’s also probably no coincidence that Leinster’s best performance in Europe over the last two seasons came in the fall-out of a Six Nations campaign, with increasing evidence that the Pro14 is no longer fit for purpose in readying Leinster or anyone else for European competition.

Here’s another thought. If Leinster are as far away from winning the Heineken Champions Cup as Sunday suggested, then where does that leave the rest of the Celtic and Italians teams?

Not that Irish sides can’t still compete against the French. Munster showed that with their win in Clermont, and Leinster when winning in Montpellier, while Connacht rattled Racing’s cage in Paris.

Yet France have now beaten Ireland home and away in the Six Nations, Toulouse have twice ended Ulster’s Champions Cup ambitions and knocked out Munster, and now La Rochelle have emphatically ended Leinster’s hopes of a cherished fifth star.

Ultimately, the abiding feeling was that the French sides, whether through power and/or X factor, were just a class above in each instance. That’s a worrying trend.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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