Gerry Thornley: Years of hurt prime Leinster for physicality of Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle

Province’s opportunity to win fifth star will only become more difficult to create in future

Even on foot of Leinster securing their place in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals, Brian O'Driscoll ventured on BT Sport that this season feels like Leinster's time. Now that his former province have reached the final that feeling has hardened. What's more, opportunities like next Saturday's final against La Rochelle in the Stade Vélodrome will only become more difficult to create given even a cursory glance into the future.

Three years of accumulated hurt, and particularly the painful lessons from last season’s semi-final defeat by La Rochelle, have aligned to make Leinster a team better equipped, as well as a hungrier one, to cope with bigger, physical opponents such as Ronan O’Gara’s side.

Leinster had their dominant spells and chances, particularly toward the end of the first half, in the empty Stade Marcel-Deflandre last season, but ultimately La Rochelle wore them down to win deservedly, in large part due to them winning the collisions on both sides of the ball. This gradually blunted Leinster’s running game and enabled La Rochelle to generate more go-forward ball.

So, while the return of Will Skelton (140kg) will further strengthen La Rochelle’s power game, and perhaps send a shiver down the spines of Leinster’s supporters, this season’s slightly remodelled and improved Leinster look better equipped to cope with that physicality.

They showed that in the quarter-final against Leicester and semi-final against Toulouse. The Tigers have plenty of big men, with Ollie Chessum, Calum Green and Ellis Genge nearing 120kg, with Hanro Liebenberg and Jasper Wiese not far behind, and that was before they brought on Nemani Nadolo, whose official weight of 123kg looks, well, sympathetic.

At Welford Road, Leinster won the collisions, and as much as Emmanuel Meafou (145kg) tried to be an enforcer at the Aviva Stadium, his biggest contribution was to concede a couple of penalties and a yellow card. Even when Toulouse unloaded a 6-2 bench featuring Joe Tekori (129kg) and Peato Mauvaka (123kg), it couldn’t stem Leinster’s irresistible flow.

Leinster's improvements in the tackle area were evident in that semi-final, whether it was Dan Sheehan driving Pierre Fouyssac five metres back in the tackle, Josh van der Flier doing something similar to Zack Holmes, and James Ryan and Garry Ringrose double-teaming on Thomas Ramos to force a spillage, or better still Caelan Doris exploding on to the ball to bust the tackles of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.

No less than Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton, Doris wasn't around for last season's semi-final. Indeed, he only played an hour in the pool stages. Dan Sheehan hadn't played a minute or European rugby before this season. Andrew Porter was confined to another cameo off the bench, not the starting loose-head. Porter, along with Ross Molony, has added to Leinster's defence, Doris has done so to both defence and attack, and Sheehan provides real oomph off the bench.

It’s a funny thing about the Heineken Champions Cup, but usually the best team emerge as deserved winners. Most of the metrics suggest Leinster have been the best team in this season’s competition, be it their average of points per game, or tries, or line breaks or tackle success.

But of course, all of this counts for precious little come 5.45pm French time and 4.45pm Irish time next Saturday in the Stade Vélodrome, and if this opportunity is not taken to earn that coveted fifth star, the regrets may only deepen when one looks ahead, beginning with the 2022-23 Heineken Champions Cup.

For starters, this is Johnny Sexton’s penultimate crack at the Champions Cup and the demands on Leinster as bulk suppliers to Team Ireland will be accentuated by this summer’s demanding tour and the customary November and Six Nations programmes with the 2023 World Cup in mind.

Most of all the competition from abroad is likely to be considerably stronger. The French, with seven of the last 16 and three of the semi-finalists in each of the last two seasons, have shown their preference for this format, with its abbreviated pool stages and extended knock-out element. It’s less arduous or complicated.

Their eight-strong contingent looks like being every bit as strong next season, with an ageing Clermont in need of a reboot under Jono Gibbes, currently in ninth and in danger of missing out altogether. Otherwise it will be much the same as this season’s entries, save for the likely return of three-time winners Toulon.

With James Coughlan part of their backroom team, Toulon sit seventh in the Top 14, albeit with a tough last day game away to Racing, but also will be akin to a home side when playing Lyon at the Stade Vélodrome on Friday evening in the Challenge Cup final – which provides another entry into next season’s Champions Cup.

The English hand is liable to be strengthened simply by the return of Saracens alone. After their season of purgatory in the Championship, Mark McCall’s side have returned to the Premiership and entering its final round in a fortnight in second place, just three behind Leicester and guaranteed a home semi-final.

When beating Leinster at St James’s Park three seasons ago, they were winning third Champions Cup in four years. Then, even when starting into a future in the Championship and with plenty of players being released, including Skelton, they beat Leinster in the quarter-finals at an empty Aviva two years ago before extending Racing 92 in Paris in the semi-finals.

What’s more, they showed their liking for European competition by fielding their big guns in the Challenge Cup en route to losing away to Toulon in the semi-finals. They wanted that Challenge Cup trophy. They’ll want the Champions Cup trophy next season even more.

Most of all though, for better or worse, the South Africans have landed in the competition and expanded the boundaries for European club rugby. The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks have qualified for next season’s Champions Cup and as Leo Cullen noted recently, the French and English sides possibly haven’t come to terms with the concept of having to undertake a one-off trek of up to a week for an away pool game or knock-out tie to South Africa in the midst of their weekly domestic grind next season.

The South African sides are also going to be extremely tough to beat, especially down there.

Leinster have the organisation and culture to be Euro contenders for many years but chances like this Saturday’s will be even harder to earn in the future.

gerry.thornley@irishtimes.com