Dave Winter/INPHO

O'Gara returns to haunt Leinster's European dream yet again

Leo Cullen’s side lost 32-23 to Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle in today’s Champions Cup semi-final.

La Rochelle 32

Leinster 23

Garry Doyle reports

THERE WERE TIMES today when it really did feel like the world was getting back to normal. The sun was shining; an Irish team was winning a European semi-final, a reunion with Toulouse looked likely.

You found yourself thinking that this was everything you could hope for; top quality sport in an idyllic setting and not a mention of Covid, lockdowns or restrictions.

Yet even though the sun stayed out, the shadows fell on Leinster’s Champions Cup hopes and a weekend that began with Irish hopes of seeing their provinces make it into both European deciders ended instead in defeat.

And so there won’t be a battle for the fifth star between the tournament’s two most successful sides. Instead it’ll be a French affair with La Rochelle making it into their first final, Toulouse waiting for them in the Twickenham showpiece.

The hosts deserved it. Trailing by seven at one stage in the first half, they slowly built their way into the game, troubled Leinster at both the breakdown and the set-piece, profited from having the best player on the park in Gregory Alldritt, and when it came down to it, they coped with the heat better than their Irish visitors.

For Leinster, there was some consolation in the fact Ross Byrne kicked well; that Tadhg Furlong did everything well and that Robbie Henshaw reminded Warren Gatland of his Lions credentials. But Ronan O’Gara, the coach of La Rochelle, reminded Leinster of his ability to win semi-finals.

luke-mcgrath-kicks-past-will-skelton Dave Winter / INPHO Luke McGrath kicks past Will Skelton. Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

That experience paid off.

But early on it was Leinster who were on top. Even allowing for Ross Byrne screwing a third-minute penalty wide, they regrouped from that tiny setback, bossed possession for the opening eight minutes, forcing La Rochelle into the concession of five penalties, the last of those resulting in Wiaan Liebenberg going to the bin.

In his absence, Leinster scored the opening try of the game, a pick-and-go from five metres out, Ronan Kelleher with the initial charge, Furlong, Rhys Ruddock with the follow-up carries, before Furlong re-appeared to go again, from a yard out. You don’t stop someone like Tadhg Furlong from that kind of distance.

So Leinster led, with Byrne converting, by seven points; the perfect base to build on. Instead those foundations were shaken almost immediately. Never mind their numerical disadvantage; for the remainder of Liebenberg’s time on the naughty step, La Rochelle were dominant, their maul causing havoc.

Even when Josh van der Flier turned them over in the Leinster 22 – James Lowe sending the clearance kick so far it practically landed in a neighbouring county – La Rochelle were undeterred. They won the subsequent line-out, marched Leinster backwards, won a penalty and saw Ihaia West knock it over.

Game on. Another line-out led to another La Rochelle maul, and another score, a drop goal this time from West, all this achieved while Leibenberg was in the bin.

But back came Leinster; Will Skelton giving away a penalty for going off his feet, Byrne making no mistake to put Leinster 10-6 up on 21 minutes, a lead which was extended to seven points just four minutes later, when Byrne nailed another kick.

ihaia-west-takes-a-kick Dave Winter / INPHO Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

Yet it could have been more. A crossfield kick from the Leinster outhalf just narrowly escaped Lowe’s hands; a subsequent break down the opposing wing by Jordan Larmour would have resulted in a try if Luke McGrath had have gathered his winger’s pass infield.

But it was not to be. For their part, La Rochelle were also left cursing missed opportunities, one scintillating passage of play saw them counterattack from a Lowe mistake to get within a yard of the Leinster line; Brice Dulin with the initial kick and chase, West with a crossfield effort that was gathered by Victor Vito who was then hauled down by Hugo Keenan.

Compensation arrived in the form of a couple of penalties, one from West on 33 minutes, the second on 38, leaving just a point between these teams at the break.

Discipline was starting to hurt Leinster, another penalty coughed up on 46 minutes leading to three more points from West, La Rochelle moving ahead for the first time in the game. Back came Leinster, Byrne slotting over a 52nd minute penalty to put them 16-15 up.

Momentum shifts were occurring regularly by this stage but when Lowe was shown a yellow card for illegally denying La Rochelle quick ruck ball, Leinster were down to 14 and, a minute later, down by two points on the scoreboard.

They never got back in front.

Yes, things could have got worse during Lowe’s ten-minute absence but West struck the woodwork with a penalty from half-way, before Tawera Kerr-Barlow was denied a try by a superb tackle by van der Flier right on the line.

But from the following scrum, La Rochelle did score their first try – Vito’s explosive break off the back of the scrum giving Gregory Alldritt the opportunity to sneak across, putting La Rochelle seven-points up, a lead that West extended to nine with the conversion.

Thirteen minutes remained. But the tide had turned.

La Rochelle were completely in control, Alldritt carrying well, Skelton proving to be a nuisance, never more evident when he crossed for La Rochelle’s second try with seven minutes remaining, which West converted to push the score out to 32-16. There was still time for Byrne to score a consolation try, which he converted, but that was as far as the comeback got.

And so it is La Rochelle who progress, as O’Gara, once again, manages to haunt his old rivals.  

La Rochelle scorers

Tries: Alldritt, Skelton

Conversion: West (2/2)

Penalties: West (5/6)

Drop goal: West

Leinster scorers

Try: Furlong, Byrne

Conversion: Byrne (2/2)

Penalties: Byrne (3 /4)

La Rochelle

B Dulin; D Leyds, G Doumayrou, L Botia (P Aguillon ’48), R Rhule; I West (J Plisson ’75), T Kerr-Barlow (A Retiere ‘75(; R Wardi (rep D Priso ‘52), P Bougarit (F Bosch ‘70), U Atonio (A Joly ‘67); R Sazy (capt), W Skelton; G Alldritt, W Liebenberg (yellow card ‘7 – V Vito ‘61), V Vito (K Gourdon ’52).

Replacement not used: T Lavault

LEINSTER: H Keenan; J Larmour (R O’Loughlin ’75), R Henshaw, G Ringrose, J Lowe (yellow card ’55); R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy (rep E Byrne ‘56), R Kelleher, T Furlong (rep: A Porter ‘56); D Toner (S Fardy ‘72), J Ryan; R Ruddock (rep: R Baird ‘27), J van der Flier, J Conan.

Replacements: J Tracy, R Osborne, C Frawley

Referee: M Carley (England).

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