One month on from winning the Pro14 final, Leinster are at it again with another knock-out game that could get them to another final in Europe. Following an incredible performance and all round masterclass against Exeter earlier this month, the boys in blue are fully deserving of their place in the penultimate stage of the Champions Cup! Who will win? Are we good enough? Where will the game be won and lost? Well, calm down, I’m going to take you through all of this and get you fully up to speed.
So, we’re facing La
ROGchelle Rochelle this weekend. Currently in second place behind Toulouse in the Top14. They defeated Gloucester and Sale in the knock out stages to get them to this point. They love to “Keep Ball Alive” and mix it up in attack and defense, and have looked very sharp in both areas from what we’ve seen of them so far this season. Of course, the Irish media has informed us that although they’ve never won the Champions Cup and/or got to a semi final in the competition before, they ARE the greatest team in the world and Leinster have no chance. It’s La Rochelle’s year after all, and as the Irish pundits would love to see, it’s ROG’s time to shine and sit atop the throne of greatest rugby coach of all time! Not surprising, La Rochelle have been European giants for years now right?
Of course I’m exaggerating, but only slightly, and of course La Rochelle have certainly looked impressive. However, we need to look at both sides and analyse fully the threats that both teams possess. It’s sometimes easy to forget that La Rochelle have an opponent this weekend, such is the lack of thought invested into reviewing the Leinster camp in the build up. It’s all been about the French band of warriors led by ROG who is set out on defeating his old foes from D4! Similar too that not only ROG will have incredible insight into the Leinster camp apparently (not sure how), but Jono Gibbes will know everything there is to know about Leinster and their squad……… having been in the Leinster coaching team so recently………over 7 years ago.
All that being said, many pinches of salt must be taken when listening to and reading Irish reports about games that include Leinster. Look at the recent Pro14 final and pretty much every other final we’ve been in; the media tend to look for ways to make the opposing team appear more menacing than they might be, without highlighting the strength that this 4 star European heavyweight has! Anyway, the ABL is alive and well so we’ll need to keep a salt mill around for the next couple of days as we overlook some of the
hatred jealousy bias from the media. Rant over…. for now.
Leinster’s journey to the semi final has been a very strange one this year. Like all other clubs in the competition, there were only 2 pool games, followed by a Round 16 knock out stage. Leinster didn’t get the opportunity to play their initial knockout game against Toulon due to COVID cases within the French squad, but they got to come out on top and in style away from home against the current champions Exeter. What a game that was, and what a marker to lay down after coming back from 14-0 down to win comfortably. It’s clear from that game that Leinster are not going to lie down, they know how to change their approach and overcome adversity even when the odds are against them. They are also showing massive hunger, you can see it in their faces and in how they react when winning scrums, turnovers etc. Now that’s something we haven’t seen for quite some time. It was certainly missing in the quarter final last season and I’m sure they are drawing energy and motivation from that. This time around, Leinster may not be putting on a champagne rugby style display, but they haven’t needed to either. Their overall approach seems to evolve and react to the unique environment of each fixture whilst not deviating from their game plan, which leads me to believe that the squad are very closely aligned and are thinking like a cohesive unit. Last time that happened was in 2018, and sure we all remember how that finished for Leinster. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, yet! We take on a very strong French side on Sunday, a team that is up and coming, one which backs itself to go out and try new things, and punishes errors with a very impressive attacking style. You could argue that they haven’t come up against a team as strong as Leinster yet, and to a degree you’d be very right, but they look like they’ve been able to win out their last two games in 3rd or 4th gear. Make no mistake, 5th/6th gear will be needed on Sunday!
Here is the team selection from Cullen & Co.:
15. Hugo Keenan (26)
14. Jordan Larmour (57)
13. Garry Ringrose (81)
12. Robbie Henshaw (55)
11. James Lowe (51)
10. Ross Byrne (99)
9. Luke McGrath (146) CAPTAIN
1. Cian Healy (228)
2. Rónan Kelleher (21)
3. Tadhg Furlong (111)
4. Devin Toner (263)
5. James Ryan (46)
6. Rhys Ruddock (187)
7. Josh van der Flier (93)
8. Jack Conan (102)
16. James Tracy (126)
17. Ed Byrne (67)
18. Andrew Porter (74)
19. Scott Fardy (77)
20. Ryan Baird (22)
21. Rowan Osborne (10)
22. Ciarán Frawley (34)
23. Rory O’Loughlin (82)
Not too shabby from Leinster. 15 Irish internationals will start the game, followed by another 6 on the bench if required. Pretty much what we expected, an almost fully locked and loaded squad bar a couple of players who have missed out through injury.
Sexton has missed out as he goes through the graduated return to play protocols, but he’s been replaced by Ross Byrne who has been in incredible form this season and will give no Leinster supporter any doubts as to his ability to keep the squad ticking over for the 80 minutes. With Sexton out, Luke Mc Grath will take the captains armband. A great choice, he’s been a great leader in the squad and has been one of our best performers this year. Did you know he’s beaten more defenders than any other player in the competition this season? Very impressive stuff from him.
11-15 is brilliant, Keenan, Larmour, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe. That is a thing of beauty, absolutely zero chinks in that backline armour!
Then let this set in; Healy, Kelleher, Furlong. Unbelievable strength in the front row! And to top it all off, we have power power power in Toner, Ryan, Ruddock Van Der Flier and Conan. This selection has the makings of an unstoppable force.
The bench is a mix of great experience and some up and comers. James Tracy isn’t Sean Cronin but he is a workhorse and durable. Ed Byrne has been in great form off the bench in previous games and has only ever brought equal intensity to the overall squad performance when called from the bench. Then we have Porter, Fardy and Baird who will bring a massive amount of energy, skill and power to Leinster in the latter stages of the game. Finally, we have Osborne who will be in line to make his Champions Cup debut if Mc Grath is called ashore. Frawley will be a handy player to have also as he can cover 10 and 12. Similarly handy is O’Loughlin who can play on the wing and center. Personally, I’m disappointed that Kearney won’t feature, he has been probably Leinster’s most consistent player this season. I assume he’s been left out due to O’Loughlin’s ability to cover two positions. And with regard to Penny, he’s probably very close to breaking through to the European squad but given the experience of his peers, it’s understandable that Cullen has opted to go for big game knowledge. I’ve no doubt that Penny will feature in many huge games for over the next year, this game has just come a little too early for him.
La Rochelle has an excellent team selection too. Most noticeable is the inclusion of the first choice 9 and 10 who were major doubts for the game earlier this week. They have strength everywhere and will be a formidable challenge in the pack as the majority of their forwards are massive in size.
Where the game will be won.
Our opponents this weekend have some unique approaches to their game. The lineout is fiercely contested in both attack and defense, whether they have the ball or not. This is an area of their game which they will be confident of disrupting Leinster’s lineout. Leinster’s lineout operators will need to be in excellent form and ready for this challenge as our lineouts haven’t been the strongest part of our game over the last couple of years.
Given the size of their pack, expect La Rochelle to maul everything they can and attempt to bulldoze the scrum. This is where again the forwards will really need to step up and try to dominate. So, two areas of the set piece where La Rochelle will very much fancy their chances and I’m sure have identified entry points to our try line. Expect the majority of the training ground moves to come from these two areas. In order to counteract, Leinster will need to have a rock solid defense and not fall asleep in the first half. If we go down 14 nil against this team, there may be no coming back. We will need cool heads and full heart going into the battle of the set piece.
Another area of La Rochelle’s game is to go hard at every ruck. They love to disrupt the ruck and slow ball down, and equally commit enough players to ensure ball security when they have possession on the ground. Leinster may need to commit more players to the ruck as a result, but may find an opportunity if they can get quick ball out wide while the French commit lots of players to our attacking ruck.
Of course, Leinster have their threats too, sure look at that backline again for reference. Leinster has a devastating approach to their attack, they only need half an opening and no warm welcome, and they’re through.
Another area is the ball handling and skill from our forwards. Take Furlong, Conan, Kelleher Van Der Flier for example, they are all strong reliable ball handlers and love to charge in to traffic to disrupt and pierce holes in defense. They also however have great offloading skills which as we know is not necessarily a prerequisite skill you expect from your pack. Furlong has been acting like a center in recent games, with a nice quick step and no look offloading technique just a couple of examples of the weapons in his arsenal. Our forwards can mix things up so much that they become very unpredictable to our opponents and that is a great advantage to have. If you can keep your opponents guessing and analyzing potential moves for just one second longer, that can lead to errors in defense and allows players to make more ground in attack. Watch out for these four lads I mentioned, I bet that the French defenders will be marking them big time.
Ultimately, Leinster need to avoid the arm wrestle and play to their own strengths only. Every time Leinster try to switch things up to negate or challenge their opponent’s approach, they can unravel a bit. But when Leinster stick to their guns and impose their game fully on the opponent, it’s generally a very good outcome for the boys in blue. Stick to the game plan and reap the rewards!
There are few easy games in the Champions Cup and no weak sides to face in the knock out stages. If Leinster want to lift the trophy this season and stick a fifth star on their jersey, they’ll need to put out a performance even stronger than the one we saw against Exeter, the positive momentum needs to build and improve every week. The step up required will need to come from the entire 23 and not just a few individuals. I feel that being away to La Rochelle will certainly ease the stress for the French and allow them those home comforts which can settle some of the nerves. Leinster will not be afraid of travelling to France for a semi final, in fact, I believe it’ll be exactly what the doctor ordered following some residual agony within the squad following their loss to Clermont at this same stage a few years ago. A big win in France will get that monkey off their collective back.
Leinster know that glory awaits and it’s very much in their hands, and I believe that although the force will be strong in this French side, they will have much to learn from the masters. Sounds slightly like a Star Wars reference there but in fairness, La Rochelle will need more than Obe Wan Kenobe as their only hope. I expect a masterclass again from the boys in blue and another step up towards the final. We have a squad that is packed with world class pedigree and I can’t see the French putting it up against them for the full 80. I feel sorry for the rugby journalists that will be forced to celebrate Leinster’s success afterwards, it’ll be a tough one to take for sure, but we Leinster supporters will have the salt at the ready yet again in a few weeks’ time! Cheeky prediction; Keenan to score under the posts within the first 15 minutes and we’ll keep the lead throughout.
La Rochelle 23 – Leinster 32
Come On Leinster!!!!!
Match day result: La Rochelle 32 – Leinster 23 (at least I got the score right, but the wrong way around……) #onwardsandupwards