The Heineken Champions Cup final will be an entirely French affair after La Rochelle knocked out European giant Leinster from the competition this weekend.
It was almost a two-half story in France on Sunday, although La Rochelle finished the first half strong, having offered Leinster territory, possession and scoring chances. Curiously, it is the French part which, at the beginning, could not face the summer sun. Dillyn Leyds handed Leinster two possessions deep in his 22, while another rebounded into touch for a defensive line-up just five yards from his own goal line.
This increased the pressure on La Rochelle and resulted in a huge penalty concession, with a yellow card after just seven minutes. It is possible that this gave Leinster a false foot in the game because once La Rochelle got back on their feet they too easily balanced the momentum.
The first half was in Leinster’s favor, but La Rochelle turned them around in the 39th minute and had the last offensive platform in the first half. Leinster is known to have dealt a blow at this point in the match. This is common among teams that win tournaments and cause big upheavals, usually due to the disparity in mentality between the two teams on the pitch.
The dominant team will continue to play while the other hangs on at half-time. La Rochelle stood up to Leinster, turned them around and entered the break dragging just one point but with a strong mastery of the dynamics of the match. It was a memorable moment on the road to victory.
The way La Rochelle entered the second half is worrying both for Leinster and Irish rugby in general. They beefed up Leinster for long stretches of halftime and seemed comfortable in their dismantling of Leinster’s defense.
The French team led by Ronan O’Gara and Jono Gibbes created chances with smooth, wide passes, mixed with tight carries, fueled by a good deal of the Aussie growl through Will Skelton. La Rochelle also turned the referee around and really affected Leinster’s breakdown, which earned Pierre Bourgarit the Man of the Match award for his efforts.
Most worryingly, Leinster is quite easily Ireland’s most dominant province. We discussed them because of their ability to balance excess development while winning trophies. They develop over time and, therefore, feed the senior and academic teams in other provinces. They are the strongest Irish hand which included a fully capped starting squad and a few more capped internationals on their bench. Yet they were still not up to the power of La Rochelle.
To be fair, Leinster had lost a few bodies, but they can’t all play at the same time. Johnny Sexton would have made a difference when the game was in the balance, despite a positive performance from Ross Byrne, and a fit Caelan Doris is a huge loss for the side.
Following the weekend, the other Irish provinces cannot use Leinster as an excuse not to succeed at the moment.
The same question arises every time Leinster loses. What competition do they have at home? Are the other Pro14 teams challenging them enough? Or is the world of rugby becoming separated by bigger teams and purchasing power in France?
La Rochelle aren’t France’s most star-studded squad, so some might argue that it’s not fair for La Rochelle to compare them to other European powers like Toulon in their prime. However, they brought in a couple of Kiwi half-backs, World Cup winner Victor Vito, mountain man Will Skelton, alongside a few French internationals.
On paper, you still wouldn’t say they were more stacked than Leinster who have Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose to name a few. They are all world class operators. Unfortunately, they either underperformed or were outclassed this time around.
If you think of the game in layman’s terms, Leinster had a dream start that they capitalized on, but they fell to power from La Rochelle and made more unusual mistakes that have crept into their game all season. James Lowe was condemned to sin, and their number of penalties was beyond their standards. This is not what we expect from Leinster.
Munster and Ulster would both claim to be their closest opponents. Not to mention Munster’s last win, as it wasn’t the same, Munster still wasn’t in a position to topple Leinster domestically when it mattered most.
Ulster were furious as there was no play-off place for them to claim a possible Pro14 final, but at the end of the day they still finished second to Leinster in the conference. Add to that, Ulster had a chance to win a European trophy to prove they were at least Ireland’s second best team, but they missed their chance against the Leicester Tigers.
Much like their match against Connacht, they started out slow, controlled the middle of the match, and then lost control again. If Ulster were worth challenging as Ireland’s best team, they had to go on and win the second tier European tournament.
Following the weekend, the other Irish provinces cannot use Leinster as an excuse not to succeed at the moment. As it turns out, Leinster is lagging behind in Europe as well, which means all of Irish rugby is weak when it comes to European dominance.
This is not the story of a man from Munster trying to take Leinster down for also failing to win the European Cup. It’s more the story of a fan and fan of Irish rugby worrying about the highest standards of European rugby avoiding the Irish provinces.
On a different day, with one or two other key players available, Leinster could have come out of France with a very different result. However, this time it happened against them and it will be like a missed opportunity after the shocking start La Rochelle made to the game. There were weaknesses there that they simply did not exploit.
No doubt Leinster will return next year as one of the favorites to win the competition, especially as they beat last year’s champions on their way to their untimely exit. Still, it looks like a loss for Irish rugby as much as it does for Leinster.
It will take a change of strategy, or something a little more off the beaten track to win the trophy next year, as the Champions Cup is currently a battle of power and strength, a battle that the Irish provinces do. weren’t up to par this time around.