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La Rochelle the final hurdle on Leinster's stunning drive for five

The province are hot favourites ahead of today’s Heineken Champions Cup final but Ronan O’Gara will surely have a plan up his sleeve.

Leinster train at the Stade Vélodrome on Friday.
Leinster train at the Stade Vélodrome on Friday.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

MARSEILLE IS A city that drips with history. The stunning Notre-Dame de la Gard keeps watch over France’s oldest city from its perch high above the town, while the busy old port still bustles with life, an area that welcomed early Greek settlers back in 600BC now mainly attracting tourists and locals for drinks, dinner and picturesque views of the crystal blue Mediterranean sea. 

To the east of the city centre, the eye can’t help but be drawn towards the unmistakable white arched roof of the 67,000 capacity Stade Velodrome, a futuristic vision in a city that has always embraced it’s rougher edges. This is the town that gave France Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona, after all. Like Marseille itself, they knew style and beauty can exist in harmony with a bit of grit and graft. 

That’s been the message from both camps this week as Leinster and La Rochelle touched down in Marseille for an intriguing Heineken Champions Cup final [KO 4.45pm Irish time, Virgin Media 2/BT Sport 2/Channel 4].

Leinster arrive as the most thrilling purveyors of the modern attacking game in European club rugby, while La Rochelle hold the slightly unfair tag of brute enforcers. Both know they’ll need to borrow a little from the other’s playbook to get over the line this evening.

Leinster have played some exhilarating rugby on their route to this final, but their quarter-final win over Leicester Tigers was more or less done and dusted after 20 minutes. They were similarly comfortable against a fatigued Toulouse seven days later. Both teams still gave the province cause for concern around the scrum.

In last year’s semi-final, La Rochelle’s big ball carriers proved too powerful for a Leinster team missing some key men, but they can and must offer more today if they are to get over the line. 

With the mercury set to tip past 30C, it’s going to be a draining experience for two sides desperate to get their hands on the trophy; Leinster for a fifth time, La Rochelle a first.

“We were hugely disappointed with the way last season ended,” says Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.

“There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into a campaign to get you back to this point.”

La Rochelle will see scrums as an entry point into the match, knowing it’s the one area where there remains some question mark around Leinster. The mental battle in this department could be fascinating. The province were by all accounts genuinely concerned about how Leicester might trouble them around the set-piece and having struggled with La Rochelle’s physicality in their semi-final meeting 12 months ago, it might not take much to plant that seed of doubt in Leinster heads again.

For all the attacking talent on show today, it still comes down to a game of collisions. The problem facing La Rochelle this year is that Leinster now move the ball so quickly, it can be hard to get near them to make those hits. Having James Lowe and Tadhg Furlong both fit also allows Cullen name the same team which swept aside Tigers and Toulouse.

“In these kind of forward games, it’s understanding what that (physicality) actually looks like,” explains Leinster lock, James Ryan.

james-ryan-and-leo-cullen James Ryan and Leo Cullen face the media in Marseille yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s not just about being physical, it’s about understanding how do you actually get to that point.

“For us as a forward pack it’s being really accurate with our line-out on both sides. Defensively it’s working early, it’s setting early, it’s being connected, it’s scanning, all these little bits that allow us to be physical. In the ruck it’s arriving early, it’s not watching and waiting. So it’s making sure that we’re nailing on the process that allows us to impose ourselves as a forward pack.”

That’s the Leinster view, how about La Rochelle? The French side were strikingly relaxed during their Captain’s Run yesterday, whether it be the players bringing a boombox out onto the pitch, Donnacha Ryan cracking jokes with his forwards or Ronan O’Gara sending a few booming spiral-kicks spinning through the French sun. And yes, he’s still got a decent boot on him.

“So much goes through your head in trying to prepare your team as best you can for potential scenarios A, B, C or D,” O’Gara explains.

“But I think there are certain elements of Leinster’s game you have to respect and you have to get a handle on, otherwise it’s going to be a long day for us.

But I think what is important for our team is that we play. I was that guy that froze in a first final, and that happens. People will freeze tomorrow but you’re just hoping that not too many of the boys will, and that’s what experience is, putting yourself in the same scenario and doing it better the next time.

“So I think from my finals as a player, you look at them and the Northampton (final, 2000) was a non-event, the Leicester (2002) was good because firstly you played. But then I just remember the Biarritz (2006) and there was a feeling from Paul (O’Connell) to the rest of the players: ‘We’ve got to play boys’.”

The return of Will Skelton – a remarkably big man in a team full of big men – is a major bonus for O’Gara’s charges, but they go into the game without scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow and powerful back row Victor Vito.

ronan-ogara-and-will-skelton this is the big one Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I think what excites me is that my team can play,” O’Gara continues.

“We need to get the ball into (Jérémy) Sinzelle’s hands, we need to get outside and then we’ve got juicy forwards. So we can play both games, we just need to play.

“Yeah, Leinster have got great threats but it excites me coaching this team, it really does. I don’t know where it will end. It may not be a happy ending tomorrow but I’m hopeful it will. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did and I’m just trying to instil that in the boys.

They’re just so willing, so willing, but I think where we are now mentally is that I’d like to think we won’t lose tomorrow. We may get beaten, but there’s a massive difference, and I think it’s important that the players understand that.

“With the quality of team we’re up against, Leinster won’t lose it. We’re going to have to beat them. So that excites me, being part of tomorrow, because it’s possible if we’re accurate we can do something.”

Leinster enter the game as heavy favourites but La Rochelle certainly have the capacity to beat the province for a second year running, particularly when you add in the vocal French support expected and the sticky conditions, with some talk yesterday of scope for water breaks.

raymond-rhule Raymond Rhule stops to pose with a picture of himself while carrying the team's boombox. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Yet it’s hard to see past Leinster. Traditionally, the best team throughout the season wins this competition and Leinster have been a class above every side they have played. Not only are they clinical and accurate, they are ruthless in their desire to put teams away.

They lifted this trophy as recently as 2018 but there is still a hunger in the squad. Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris, Jimmy O’Brien and Rónan Kelleher are among those looking for their first Champions Cup medal, as the province look to move level with Toulouse at the top of the Champions Cup roll of honour.

“It’s important for us to win a fifth star because it puts us on a par with Toulouse, definitely, and we want to be recognised as one of the best teams in Europe,” Ryan adds.

History. It’s only 80 minutes away. 

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Joe McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Ciaran Frawley.

LA ROCHELLE: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Jérémy Sinzelle, Jonathan Danty, Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Thomas Berjon; Dany Priso, Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio; Thomas Lavault, Will Skelton; Wiaan Liebenberg, Matthias Haddad, Grégory Alldritt (captain).

Replacements: Facundo Bosch, Reda Wardi, Joel Sclavi, Romain Sazy, Remi Bourdeau, Arthur Retiere, Levani Botia, Jules Favre. 

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU]

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy  / In Marseille

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