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Leinster must make big-game experience count against ROG's La Rochelle

The Top 14 side have plenty of threats but Leinster will expect to handle the pressure better.

Leinster's Jack Conan will hope to celebrate today.
Leinster's Jack Conan will hope to celebrate today.
Image: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

LA ROCHELLE HAVE never been here before. If anyone knows how formative it can be to feel a bit of pain along the route towards the holy grail, it’s Ronan O’Gara.

He and Munster encountered a huge amount of heartbreak in the latter stages before finally breaking their European duck and though teams don’t need to lose within touching distance before actually getting over the line, it’s sometimes part of the process.

Leinster will certainly be viewing their greater experience of big games as a major advantage ahead of this afternoon’s Champions Cup semi-final between the teams at Stade Marcel-Deflandre [KO 3pm Irish time, BT Sport].

This is La Rochelle’s first time in the final four of Europe, where every error is magnified, every penalty is punished more severely, and every slip of concentration or effort results in your team ending up under their own posts taking a deep breath.

Leinster’s ambition is to become the first side to claim a fifth European star and their team is littered with title-winning experience even without captain Johnny Sexton.

Into Sexton’s shoes steps Ross Byrne, a man who Leo Cullen has prepared for this occasion by picking him for big games even when Sexton has been fit. Leinster’s planning will pay off today if Byrne delivers a characteristically composed performance.

Cian Healy and Devin Toner have been involved in all four of Leinster’s European successes, while six other players in today’s team started the most recent trophy success against Racing 92 in Bilbao in 2018.

La Rochelle’s XV does include 2019 European champion Will Skelton and two-time World Cup winner Victor Vito but on the whole, this will be new territory for the club.

There is no doubt that O’Gara and director of rugby Jono Gibbes’ experience of success in Europe will have been beneficial this week, although they understand that their players are the ones who will decide matters today.

ronan-ogara-and-jono-gibbes Jono Gibbes spent six years with Leinster. Source: Luttiau Nicolas/INPHO

It’s a La Rochelle team littered with quality from hard-jackling and skillful hooker Pierre Bourgarit to the man mountains of tighthead Uini Atonio and lock Skelton, both of whom can run through tackles or offload and pass. Their combination at scrum time is formidable too.

Gibbes and O’Gara have gone for Wiaan Liebenberg’s less glamorous qualities over the in-form Kevin Gourdon in a back row that also includes France number eight Gregory Alldritt – playing at six here – and Vito.

It’s a relief for the Top 14 side that Kiwi halfbacks Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Ihaia West are fit to start, with the former a threat around the fringes and the latter offering pace and a sharp attacking kicking game.

It’s been no surprise that an O’Gara-coached team loves a cross-field kick, though Leinster’s Byrne may look to use his strength in that area too given how high La Rochelle’s defence gets on the edge. He will search for space behind wing pair Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds, two Springboks who have been in brilliant form.

Leyds is very creative, while Rhule runs superb lines in what is a clever La Rochelle attack from set-piece platforms. We wait to see what possible weaknesses O’Gara has picked out in Leinster’s defence. 

Brice Dulin has been reborn at fullback in La Rochelle, with his left boot important to their kicking game. He’s 5ft 9ins but has good aerial skills, even if Leinster will use contestable kicking as part of their plan against the aggressive home defence.

So there is a high amount of skill in this La Rochelle XV and they have played with impressive cohesion this season – a strength Leinster are defined by.

Cullen’s men will be carrying the boost of belief garnered from their superb comeback win over Exeter in the quarter-finals, when they exited their 22 well, played with fluidity in the middle third of the pitch, and were clinical with chances in the opposition 22 to turn around an early 14-0 deficit.

james-ryan-and-ed-byrne James Ryan has recovered from a head injury. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fullback Hugo Keenan continues to grow as an attacking force, while James Lowe and Jordan Larmour are excellent finishers. Robbie Henshaw is the Lions 12 in waiting while Garry Ringrose’s successful return from injury last weekend against Munster was a boost.

Byrne and stand-in captain Luke McGrath know each other very well in the halfbacks, while James Ryan is also back to lead the pack and probably senses that he needs to make one last big statement before the Lions squad is named on Thursday.

Tadhg Furlong has built back towards his status as the best tighthead in European rugby, while hooker Rónan Kelleher and Healy will also have their eyes on the Lions announcement next week. 

Leinster’s back row was remarkably effective against Exeter, with Jack Conan in excellent form, Rhys Ruddock as combative as ever, and Josh van der Flier playing some of his best rugby after improving his ball-carrying.

Ryan Baird and Andrew Porter will be impactful weapons off the bench and it’s easy to understand why Leinster are favourites here.

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As much as O’Gara will have enjoyed picking apart Leinster’s game in the build-up, you sense that Stuart Lancaster and his on-field leaders will feel they can expose a few La Rochelle habits as they come under the white-hot pressure of this first Champions Cup semi-final.

La Rochelle:

15. Brice Dulin
14. Dillyn Leyds
13. Geoffrey Doumayrou
12. Levani Botia
11. Raymond Rhule
10. Ihaia West
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow

1. Reda Wardi
2. Pierre Bourgarit
3. Uini Atonio
4. Romain Sazy (captain)
5. Will Skelton
6. Gregory Alldritt
7. Wiaan Liebenberg
8. Victor Vito

Replacements:

16. Facundo Bosch
17. Dany Priso
18. Arthur Joly
19. Thomas Lavault
20. Kevin Gourdon
21. Arthur Retiere
22. Jules Plisson
23. Pierre Aguillon

Leinster:

15. Hugo Keenan
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Luke McGrath (captain)

1. Cian Healy
2. Rónan Kelleher
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Scott Fardy
20. Ryan Baird
21. Rowan Osborne
22. Ciarán Frawley
23. Rory O’Loughlin

Referee: Matthew Carley [RFU].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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