Leinster captain Caelan Doris and La Rochelle's Levani Botia.

This is the game Leinster have been waiting for all season

The province have adapted their game and made some interesting selection calls for today’s Champions Cup date with La Rochelle.

IT’S KNOCKOUT RUGBY, but the stakes certainly feel higher for Leinster ahead of today’s Champions Cup quarter-final meeting with La Rochelle [KO 5.30pm, RTÉ/TNT Sports].

The French side come to Dublin with nothing to prove. They’ve been there and done it twice now, so you sense Top 14 success is perhaps a bigger target than a remarkable three-in-a-row in the Champions Cup.

That’s not to suggest they’ll be taking today’s game lightly. That Ronan O’Gara decided to plant his players in Cork for the week tells you everything you need to know about how seriously they’re taking this challenge. O’Gara haunted Leinster enough during his playing days, but knocking the province out of this competition for the fourth year running would be nightmare territory.

That must be a frightening prospect for the province, who have sauntered through the last two European seasons before seeing their dreams shattered at the final hurdle. 

La Rochelle’s late winning score in Marseille (2022) was devastating and the manner of last year’s collapse was on a whole other level, the province seeing an early 17-0 lead crumble on their own turf.

There is not yet enough evidence to suggest they are a better team now, but today is the day they put a year of work to the test. 

jacques-nienaber Leinster assistant coach Jacques Nienaber. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Jacques Nienaber was brought to Leinster to get the province over the line in games like this, and while his influence has been evident across different stages across the season, today that needs to come together with a complete, authoritative performance.

Leinster may suggest otherwise, but they have been physically bested in this fixture over the years. December’s pool stage win was an important one in terms of helping Leinster believe they can bring the fight to their French foes, but equally, one imagines the hosts didn’t lose too much sleep over the result.

When the stakes are highest La Rochelle tend to win, and their remarkable self-belief is perhaps their most impressive trait. They’ve won 10 straight knockout games in this competition since losing the 2021 final. O’Gara’s men are never out of the game, an important lesson Leinster have learned the hard way.

The province feel they are better equipped to meet that mental challenge this time around so the next task is matching them physically, hence the 6:2 bench split and the decisions to opt for Jason Jenkins’ power over Ross Molony’s lineout smarts (Ryan Baird will call the lineout today) and put chop tackle specialist Will Connors in a Champions Cup team for just the third time in his career.

It’s an interesting selection. In previous seasons Leinster’s team has been largely predictable. Now they’re taking the horses for courses approach, and with good reason.

jason-jenkins Jason Jenkins starts for Leinster. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Power athletes such as Will Skelton, Uini Atonio, Grégory Alldritt and Jonathan Danty have all done serious damage against Leinster. Today sees Skelton and Alldritt start together for the only sixth time this season, and listeners to Wednesday’s Rugby Weekly Extra podcast will already know La Rochelle won the previous five.

Then throw in O’Gara’s decision to camp his soldiers up in Cork for the week. If La Rochelle lose, their stay in the south will be brushed over but if they win it will be seen as the latest masterstroke from the former Munster man. And given how much La Rochelle have drawn from ‘theming’ their weeks and seasons previously, it’s not hard to envision the French side gleaning an extra couple of per cent from a week in their head coach’s heartland.

La Rochelle were welcomed with open arms in Cork, and while Cullen would prefer to see the country row in behind his charges, he’s fully aware their visitors will have plenty of backers both the stands and on the sofas and barstools of Ireland today. 

ronan-ogara Ronan O'Gara during yesterday's Captain's Run in Dublin. Nick Elliott / INPHO Nick Elliott / INPHO / INPHO

It’s another layer of intrigue in a rivalry that now carries a nice edge to it.

“Yeah, there seems to be a bit of a Cork bandwagon,” Cullen said. “The mafia have jumped onto the bandwagon along with La Rochelle.

“It’s great, isn’t it? That’s what sport needs, doesn’t it, and I’m glad that we’re a part of it.

“If you go back the last couple of years, we’ve this rivalry because we’ve played in two finals. In previous years we weren’t even at the table. Maybe in the previous years we were when we beat Racing the final, then we lost to Saracens in the final and we had some good battles with Saracens.

But that’s the beauty of the tournament. It’s what makes it so special, some of the rivalries that are there.

“For us, we’re the only Irish team in the competition and you’d love if all of Ireland got behind you. But that’s not the way it works, as we know. But we’re the last man standing of the Irish provinces. The Bulls and ourselves are the last two teams from the URC in the competition. So, we’re representing the competition that we play in.”

Cullen pointed to the resources available to the tournament’s French sides but similarly, the French would be happy to list off the Test internationals on Leinster’s books.

It’s all part of what gives this fascinating rivalry a Test-game feel, with a sold-out crowd expected in Dublin 4 this evening.

greg-alldritt-is-tackled-by-leolin-zas La Rochelle captain Grégory Alldritt missed the December game against Leinster. Steve Haag Sports / EJ Langner/INPHO Steve Haag Sports / EJ Langner/INPHO / EJ Langner/INPHO

A La Rochelle win would put them one step closer to true greatness, but they have their own issues going into the game.

Like Leinster, they haven’t hit their usual heights this season. Brice Dulin is a loss at fullback, while the absence of Pierre Bourgarit (shoulder) and Reda Wadi (wrist) robs them of some front row power. Indeed, it was interesting to hear Cullen yesterday talk about Leinster looking to ‘go after’ the La Rochelle scrum this evening. 

The common theory is his team will need to deliver their best performance of the season if they are to get over the line. There’s also a feeling that in many ways, their entire campaign has been designed to delivering when this day eventually arrived. 

Now it’s here.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Jamie Osborne, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Joe McCarthy, Jason Jenkins; Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Caelan Doris (capt).

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Michael Milne, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ross Molony, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Ciarán Frawley, Josh van der Flier.

LA ROCHELLE: Dillyn Leyds; Jack Nowell, UJ Seuteni, Jonathan Danty, Teddy Thomas; Antoine Hastoy, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Louis Penverne, Tolu Latu, Uini Atonio; Ultan Dillane, Will Skelton; Judicael Cancoriet, Levani Botia, Greg Alldritt (capt).

Replacements: Quentin Lespiaucq-Brettes, Alexandre Kaddouri, Joel Sclavi, Thomas Lavault, Paul Boudehent, Yoan Tanga, Teddy Iribaren, Ihaia West. 

Referee: Karl Dickson [RFU]

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel