Jacques Nienaber at Leinster training. Nick Elliott/INPHO

14 weeks later: Can Nienaber's defence carry Leinster past La Rochelle?

The South African was brought in to help with the big games like Saturday’s.

IT WAS THE sheer matter-of-fact manner in which Jacques Nienaber said it that made you pause.

14 weeks. That’s how long it would take for Leinster’s players to grasp his defensive system. It wasn’t said with hope so much as total conviction. 

The question hadn’t even been about a specific timeframe, rather about whether everyone would need to be patient with the changes to Leinster’s defensive system.

“It will be 14 weeks,” said Nienaber. “It took 14 weeks with Munster, it took 14 games with the Boks when we took over in 2018.”

Nienaber began coaching Leinster on 27 November, so he has been in the role for just over 19 weeks now.

Since Nienaber started, Leinster have played 14 games – seven in the URC, five in the Champions Cup, and two friendly games during the Six Nations period.

Leinster have obviously been without their large Ireland contingent for a big chunk of Nienaber’s time with the province so he could have pointed to that as a challenge, but this was the timeframe the senior coach set for himself. He had total confidence.

Whatever way you want to read the timeline we’re right in the ballpark for the Leinster defence to produce something big. That’s ideal as Leinster face their bitter rivals La Rochelle in the Champions Cup quarter-final on Saturday.

Leinster’s signature defensive performance under Nienaber so far was their pool-stage win over La Rochelle back in December, a 16-9 victory just two weeks into the South African’s time with the province.

ronan-kelleher-celebrates-after-the-game-with-thomas-clarkson Leinster's defence was excellent in the rain in La Rochelle. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

There was heavy rain at Stade Marcel Deflandre on that occasion, limiting what the attacks could do, but Nienaber’s charges delivered a ferocious, suffocating defensive display that kept les Rochelais try-less.

It wasn’t a knock-out game but that win in La Rochelle was something of a statement from Leinster and surely a big psychological boost after losing their previous three games against the Top 14 side. Leinster won some huge moments close to their own tryline in defence, while also forcing handling errors from La Rochelle further out the pitch.

Leinster’s defensive performances since have been largely strong, with a few bad patches in there. A week after the game in La Rochelle, Sale Sharks scored three tries against them at the RDS but then Leinster limited Munster to just three points in their win in the rain at Thomond Park.

The numbers look good. Leinster have conceded just eight tries in their five Champions Cup games so far, a better record than any other team. Everyone else is in double figures, with La Rochelle and Toulouse next-best on 11 conceded. Leinster have conceded the fewest points in the Champions Cup with 75, just ahead of Toulouse on 76. Leinster have also conceded the fewest points in the URC, with Sean O’Brien having steered the defensive ship before Nienaber took over.

Last weekend’s defensive performance in the Round of 16 win over Leicester had some good stuff in it and some poor stuff too.

An intercept try is the dream for every defence and Robbie Henshaw delivered in that regard.


Leinster are down to 14 men at this stage with James Lowe in the sin bin, but there’s no let-up in their aggression as Henshaw makes a good read on the edge of the defence.

He’s only concerned about the ball, not the two Leicester players he’s leaving outside. Henshaw backs himself to make the intercept, which he’s been encouraged to do by Nienaber, and goes as soon as the ball leaves Tigers centre Dan Kelly’s hands.

Later in the game, Ciarán Frawley nearly pulled off another intercept on scrum defence inside Leinster’s 22.


La Rochelle will be cognisant of not forcing long passes where the ball hangs up in the air against Leinster.

Even when they’re not trying to pick off the ball, Nienaber’s men are intent on getting upfield with relentless linespeed to make ball-and-all tackles well behind the gainline, shutting down the attack’s options and forcing errors as often as possible to create counter-attacking chances.

They’ve also been consistently aggressive at the breakdown this season, either via classic jackaling or through their new-found focus on counter-rucking or ‘barging’ after the tackle.


The example above comes at a crucial stage in their URC win over the Bulls two weekends ago, with Jack Conan and Lowe barging through, the latter hooking the ball backwards to complete the turnover.

This turnover also came after Leinster had to scramble back in defence, something they have done consistently well under Nienaber. This was the Springboks’ calling card too. There is no such thing as a lost cause in Nienaber’s world.

Leinster have been penalised in a few situations like the one above for defenders having their hands on the ground as they counter-ruck, while there’s a danger of being seen to play the opposition scrum-half, but Nienaber seems to be happy with those risks as they search for turnovers.

In that sense, they’re probably a little like La Rochelle defensively now. The French side have always seemed relatively content to risk breakdown penalties as they go all-out for poaches in that area through jackal specialists like Levani Botia and Grégory Alldritt.

Leinster’s defensive system seems a hint more chaotic now, even if it involves a huge amount of structure. There’s sometimes a slightly wild edge to it. While some of that has been down to teething issues as players adapt to different demands from Nienaber, it also seems to be by design. As with attack, being unpredictable can be a good thing for a defence.

Nienaber will have been pleased to see his players covering a couple of attacking kicks from Leicester last weekend.


This was an area in which La Rochelle went after Leinster back in December, while teams like Sale and Ulster have had success against the Leinster defence with attacking kicks.


The impression is that La Rochelle’s attack hasn’t been as consistently potent this season as in the past, yet their tries and points scored numbers are still solid.

And when their best players are firing, they can be difficult to stop. After a poor first half against the Stormers last weekend, Ronan O’Gara’s side narrowed up their attack and made big inroads close to the ruck through the likes of Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Will Skelton, and Alldritt.

While Leinster kept them try-less in December, La Rochelle have scored three tries in each of the two finals against Leinster, who will feel that some of those scores were just too easy.


Jonathan Danty bounces off Garry Ringrose’s tackle attempt in the example from last year’s final above, while La Rochelle exploit the shortside on third phase of a lineout attack in the instance below from the 2022 decider.


La Rochelle deserve credit for the tries they’ve scored against Leinster, of course, but the signing of Nienaber was made with the sense that the province’s defence could improve when it mattered most in the biggest games.

There have been so many encouraging signs in recent months and yet, Nienaber had things to pick at from last weekend’s win over Leicester too.

Missed tackles happen regularly in his system given how much linespeed is involved but he’ll have underlined once again the importance of sticking hits and being dominant wherever possible ahead of this weekend.

In the build-up to the first of Leicester’s three tries last weekend, there was a simple missed tackle from Josh van der Flier on James Cronin.


Mistakes happen in every game, of course, but Nienaber will have been disappointed that Leinster never really recovered from there.

A few phases later, Leicester number eight Jasper Wiese makes a direct carry close to the ruck and wins more gainline.


Caelan Doris and van der Flier sit off the tackle a little, whereas Nienaber wants his players coming forward to dominate.

With more gainline progress, Leicester strike to score on the next phase as one pass beats five defenders and Handré Pollard finishes past Jamison Gibson-Park after Kelly’s offload.


Leinster are well aware that they can’t let a team as powerful as La Rochelle to play on top of them over a series of phases, so their aggression and accuracy into the tackle will need to hit a similar peak to the December clash.

The classic saying about defence winning championships still rings true and though this isn’t a final, there’s no doubt that Leinster’s defensive effort will be key if they’re to beat this La Rochelle team on Saturday.

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