Gerry Thornley: Now that they have a taste for it, O’Gara and La Rochelle will be back

If French side repeat similar dominance next season then, ‘Houston, we have a problem’

La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara looks on during the Champions Cup final against Toulouse. Photograph:  Dan Sheridan/Inpho

La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara looks on during the Champions Cup final against Toulouse. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

As with Munster at the turn of the millennium, so Ronan O’Gara and La Rochelle will have to absorb the bitter disappointment of defeat in the club’s first Heineken Champions Cup final.

Given Jono Gibbes’s long-speculated move to Clermont at the end of the season, watching O’Gara in warm-ups and on-field post-match and among the coaches, as well as in front of the media in latter weeks, clearly his role had become more influential if it wasn’t already.

This defeat, therefore, will probably hurt more than the 2016 final loss against Saracens when Racing 92 were well beaten on the day.

After Munster lost the 2000 final, Declan Kidney mused that maybe you had to lose a final before you won one. A second final defeat followed two years later, before the triumphs of 2006 and 2008, after which he said maybe you had to lose two in order to win two.

Who knows, had Munster won at the first attempt, or even the second, would they have felt sated and faded away a little? O’Gara and La Rochelle, you sense, will be back. They have a taste for it now, as have Clermont and Racing after losing five finals between them.

Tad ominously

More than a tad ominously, the Top 14 also provided seven of the last 16 in this season’s Heineken Cup, five of the quarter-finalists, three of the semi-finalists as well as both finalists. Their five-strong representation in the quarter-finalists was a first, equaling the achievement of the Pro14 twice and Premiership once.

Now, if the French repeat such similar dominance next season then “Houston, we have a problem”. But the history of the Heineken Cup demonstrates that any given year is a snapshot. As Felipe Contepomi noted, this was a particularly unique season (and credit to the organisers and all concerned for completing a pan-European club competition across six countries over the last six months despite all manner of grave forecasts to the contrary).

This led to just a two-game passage into the knockout stages instead of the normal, and more taxing, six matches.

Furthermore, as Stuart Lancaster told his players the morning after their semi-final defeat by La Rochelle, in winning six Super Bowls over an 18-year period even the Patriots finished as losers in the 12 other seasons.

Lancaster also maintained that the Leinster model can succeed. Losing an away semi-final doesn’t disprove that and certainly if anybody can do it is them, and only them.

Even so, the increasingly woebegone performances of the Pro14 in Europe is concerning. That competition has increasingly ridden on the shirt-tails of the Irish provinces, who have provided 80 per cent of the Pro14 quarter-final qualifiers in the last nine seasons, with only the Scarlets (once), Edinburgh (once) and Glasgow (twice) reaching the last eight.

Furthermore, nine defeats out of 12 in the last 16 of both competitions, leaving only Leinster standing in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, was a lamentable effort.

Leinster have a wonderful model, unlike any other in Europe. Yet French designs on conquering Europe are clear and with their Canal+ deal, multi-millionaire benefactors, the return of full stadia and their notional €11.5 million salary cap, they’re only going to get stronger. In addition to Exeter, Bristol are upwardly mobile and Saracens will probably be back the season after next, with the South Africans also potentially looming on the horizon.

Toulouse’s revival has been founded on young, indigenous talent, whether developed from within a la Julian Marchand and Romain Ntamack, or brought into their system at a young age, witness Cyril Baille and Antoine Dupont.

Toulouse are the Barcelona of French rugby and when they come calling they generally acquire their man, yet they still acquire the best of talent from abroad, not least the southern hemisphere.

Saturday’s team had two World Cup-winning All Blacks forwards, a Springboks flanker, two Australian locks, a Samoan lock on the bench, a New Zealand-Argentinian midfield and a World Cup-winning Springboks’ winger.

Granted, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe are New Zealand-reared, but their qualification through residency and Scott Fardy’s retirement should make it more feasible to bring in quality overseas players.

Certainly Munster, Ulster and Connacht couldn’t compete at elite European level without the likes of Damien de Allende, Marcell Coetzee and Bundee Aki. Even with their golden generation of home-grown forwards and half-backs, Munster were still indebted to Trevor Halstead, Shaun Payne and Freddie Pucciariello in ‘06, and to Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki in ‘08.

It’s doubtful that Leinster would have made their breakthrough in 2009 without Contepomi, Chris Whitaker, Rocky Elsom and the incomparable Isa Nacewa.

All of these players, a la Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Jared Payne at Ulster, also bring much else besides their performances, be it different experiences, ideas, skill sets and availability during the Test windows. They leave legacies and are often still talked about in each of the provinces almost reverentially, by players and coaches.

Decision

It would appear that the Union/David Nucifora and Leinster have a decision to make, namely do they want to win the Heineken Cup again or are they primarily there to serve Team Ireland? Evidently, they are currently favouring the latter.

For sure, Leinster’s production line has made them less dependent on imported signings, yet the common denominator in all of their four successes has been an enforcer type, a big, bruising lock cum blindside flanker, to add some oomph on both sides of the ball and get them over the gain line, for after Elsom, Leinster’s 2011, 2012 and 2018 triumphs had Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn and Fardy in turn.

With the Crusaders prop Michael Alaalatoa their only overseas player for next season, Leinster have no one like that now. Ironically, for all the furore around Munster’s signing of Jason Jenkins, on top of RG Snyman, either would look a good fit at Leinster.

Imagine how Leinster might benefit from a Will Skelton, a Victor Vito, a Jerome Kaino or even a Rynhardt Elstadt? Wouldn’t such a player also improve standards in the organisation? Everyone else is doing it, even Toulouse, so why not Leinster?

Put another way, as things stand, if Leinster are to pull alongside Toulouse by winning a fifth star next season it will be their finest achievement.

gthornley@irishtmes.com

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