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Leinster face familiar questions following bitterly cruel end to European campaign

Head coach Leo Cullen described defeat to La Rochelle in Saturday’s Champions Cup final as “a sickener” for his team.

Leinster players watch on as La Rochelle celebrate an historic win.
Leinster players watch on as La Rochelle celebrate an historic win.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ANOTHER PAINFUL END to Leinster’s European season, but this defeat will hurt more than most.

For the bulk of yesterday’s gripping Heineken Champions Cup final, the province looked to be inching towards that fifth European star they so desperately wanted.

In the end, they simply couldn’t hold out a doggedly determined La Rochelle side that came to Marseille fully confident of causing a major upset, implementing a brilliant gameplan orchestrated by Ronan O’Gara, the former Munster man leading his team to a first piece of major silverware on an historic day for the club.

Despite trailing Leinster on the scoreboard for the majority of the game, La Rochelle were fully deserving champions following a thrilling final at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome, Arthur Retiere’s late try adding to earlier scores from Raymond Rhule, Pierre Bourgarit, and seeing O’Gara’s men snatch a dramatic late win. 

Having led 18-10 at one stage of the second half, Leinster saw victory slip away with the last play of the game, a bitterly cruel end to what had been a remarkable European campaign.

“It’s a sickener, for starters,” said Leinster head coach, Leo Cullen.

“The lads worked incredibly hard this year, the players, the backroom. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into getting a team to this point. We had amazing support this year, and it’s great to be at this stage.

“It’s hugely frustrating from our point of view, whatever you want to put on it, because it means so much to us. It means so much to all of us.

You can’t fault the effort. There are bits in the game that we don’t quite execute at stages. Different parts of our game that puts us under undue pressure, but that’s what you’re expecting with this kind of game anyway, it’s high stakes and high pressure against a French team, away in France.”

Marseille provided a wonderful setting for what was a gripping contest. However with flights and hotels at a premium, it wasn’t the easiest of destinations for Leinster supporters and they were comfortably outnumbered in the stands as La Rochelle’s travelling support urged their team over the line in the closing stages.

La Rochelle enjoyed 61% of the possession and never stopped believing that this was their day to make history.

They also made 143 carries to Leinster’s 72, while Cullen’s players made 210 tackles to La Rochelle’s 87. 

As the French side battered at the Leinster line in the closing 15 minutes, a winning try started to feel increasingly inevitable, their power and accuracy in those close-quarter contacts eventually proving decisive.

Leinster have been here before, and the manner of the defeat will leave the province facing the same old questions around their ability to handle more powerful teams – following previous losses to Saracens (2019, 2020) and La Rochelle (2021) – but it would be an injustice to suggest La Rochelle simply bullied their way to this win.

While some of their work up front was outstanding, they also played some superb rugby at the Stáde Velodrome, out-scoring Leinster three tries to zero and leaving more opportunites behind, sprinkling some flair on top of a relentless physical effort. 

Leinster will also have regrets around the discipline, accuracy in attack and lack of impact from the bench. 

Having been so brilliant in reaching this stage of the competition, it all fell a little flat for the province just when it mattered most.

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“There’ll be some good learning for some young guys in particular for the future, because we’re always desperate to win this tournament, properly desperate,” Cullen added.

“You can see La Rochelle, losing two finals last year, you can see the sense of desperation.

“At 18-10 we looked in control, a few decisions, a bounce of a ball, fine margins. Prior to that there are a few things in the game, we camped on their line, a similar situation to them at the end of the game. We built the scoreboard pressure, which was the right decision.

“There’s a few parts of the game we probably just don’t manage ourselves that well, and we get ourselves in a little bit of trouble, but that’s the game, isn’t it?

“We’d love to have a crack at it again, but you don’t get a second chance in finals, do you?”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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