Ryan Byrne/INPHO Leinster's Ciarán Frawley.
final hurdle

Leinster quickly park URC semi-final pain as La Rochelle lie in wait

The province won’t be URC champions this year but can still land the biggest prize in European club rugby.

IF ANYTHING WOULD sharpen the focus after a bitterly disappointing URC semi-final defeat on home soil, a Heineken Champions Cup final against defending champions La Rochelle should do the trick.

While Leinster had ambitions of landing a URC and Champions Cup double this season, one of those titles is now beyond their reach following Saturday’s enthralling URC semi-final clash with Munster.

In truth, while the defeat will have stung those involved, the matchday 23 for La Rochelle will have a very different look to it – with Robbie Henshaw, Jack Conan, Jimmy O’Brien, Rónan Kelleher, Ryan Baird, Cian Healy and Jason Jenkins the most likely to feature again this weekend.

Leinster were always going to rotate their squad throughout a demanding URC and Champions Cup run-in but Saturday was a reminder that keeping so many frontliners in reserve is always a risk. Having lost out to the Bulls in the semi-final stages last year, a Leinster side that won the various iterations of this competition four times on the bounce between 2018 and 2021 have now failed to reach the final for two years running.

“We know how it is and hence some of the calls that we make,” said the Leinster head coach, Leo Cullen.

leo-cullen-during-the-post-match-press-conference Ben Brady / INPHO Leinster head coach Leo Cullen during the post match press conference. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“It makes it a challenge but we didn’t think it was going to be an impossible challenge and that’s why we wanted to take it on. Now we’ve got one game to look forward to. We were wondering would we have two finals to look forward to coming into this game, we don’t, we have one. There’s no point in us dwelling on anything now.

“Credit to Munster, they fought till the very end and Jack Crowley knocks over a drop goal to win the game. For us now there is one focus. Will that help us now? Yeah, maybe it will help us now. It’s an unbelievably exciting challenge. La Rochelle have been the form team in Europe so it doesn’t get much bigger, does it?”

Cullen said the conversion in the dressing room post-match on Saturday had immediately turned to La Rochelle, and the prize of getting one over on the team that ended Leinster’s Champions Cup hopes at the final hurdle in Marseille last year.

“Everyone is excited to get going. Bitterly disappointing to lose this but we have a big final to look forward to now and we have to give everything we have to it. These are special weeks. You enjoy the process of preparing together. You would love another couple of weeks together but it is only one week now.”

The good news for Leinster is that by keeping so many key men back over the last couple of weeks, they should be close to full strength on Saturday, bar the obvious absence of Johnny Sexton. 

O’Brien took a knock against Munster but is expected to be ok, while returning pair Henshaw and Kelleher both came through the game without any issues. James Lowe, who hasn’t played since the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat of Leicester on 7 April, was also involved in the warm-up as he steps up his recovery.

robbie-henshaw-tackled-by-jean-kleyn-and-gavin-coombes Dan Sheridan / INPHO Robbie Henshaw played the full 80 minutes against Munster. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Cullen also offered a positive update on Will Connors, who was stretched off following a heavy bang to the head just one minute into the game.

“(Lowe) was out doing the warm-up today, so it’s good to get him through that. He was training towards the tail-end of last week, this week was a little too soon for him but he’s making all the positive noises. 

“Jimmy’s ok in there, he’d taken a bang and he’ll be assessed. It’s precautionary. Will’s gone early. He’s ok.

“The other guys are not too bad. Good to get Rónan, Robbie back. We didn’t intend to play Robbie that long, but it’s great to see him get through the 80 minutes. Rónan got 62-odd minutes.

It’s good to get some time into those guys, that’s the challenge. Munster are maybe a little bit more battle-hardened than we are, possibly, it’s hard to say.

“But yeah, we’re in a position where we could have won the game and we weren’t quite able to. We’ve got to live with the consequences.”

As well as indicating Munster benefitted from fielding a more settled team, Cullen also outlined how he feels the province are moving their game in a new direction since Graham Rowntree stepped into the top job, along with the good work being done by defence coach Denis Leamy, who joined from Leinster last summer.

“We’re seeing lots of similar traits to what we see in ourselves now,” Cullen continued.

“How they work off the ball in terms of their attack, their defensive system is pretty similar. Watching Leams in the warm-up, it’s quite similar.

“There’s lots of things there, yeah, they play very different from the traditional Munster of old I guess.

“Fair play to them, in terms of how they evolve their game all the time. From where they were earlier in the season, they’ve got to a final now – back to South Africa. We wish them well in the final.”

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