French giants La Rochelle sent a World Cup message by unpicking Ireland’s best | Robert Kitson
Plenty of weighty questions will continue to hang in the Dublin air in the months ahead after the stunning Champions Cup final between La Rochelle and Leinster on Saturday. An official investigation has already been opened into a reported altercation in the tunnel at half-time but the implications of what unfolded on the field could prove even more significant in the medium term.
Not only was this one of the most compelling modern rugby spectacles imaginable – up there with the thunderous second Test between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions in Pretoria in 2009 – but it also detonated a heap of received wisdom. Ireland’s best players, grand slam champions in March, have now been unpicked on their home pitch in front of their own fans less than four months before the Rugby World Cup. Meanwhile Stade Rochelais, driven on by their resident Irish guru, Ronan O’Gara, continue to elevate the game to another level in terms of power, passion and regional pride. Good luck to anyone seeking a quiet contemplative harbourside drink in La Rochelle in the coming days.
As the latest raucous celebrations on the Atlantic coast unfolded, it felt reasonable to wonder how many sides anywhere could have withstood the giant yellow sledgehammer that, from 17-0 down after 12 minutes, eventually secured a 27-26 comeback triumph and a second successive Champions Cup for O’Gara’s mighty crew. Leinster were irresistible in that first quarter and yet still ended up crushed by the most formidable European force there has possibly ever been. Big is not always beautiful in rugby but it was the case here.
It is not just that Will Skelton (who has now shared in three Champions Cup wins in five seasons), Jonathan Danty, Uini Atonio and Levani Botia are freaks of nature. Nor is it solely the relentless brilliance of their French No 8 Grégory Alldritt and the steel-edged running of the centre UJ Seuteni. Equally pivotal has been the competitive edge and tactical nous that O’Gara has instilled, allied to a managerial empathy that has established the 46-year-old as the smartest coach of his generation.
O’Gara knew Leinster badly wanted a record-equalling fifth title but, regardless of their home-field advantage, he had other ideas. In the buildup he told his players to imagine they were setting out to climb Everest. Who, he asked them, would they most want to conquer it for? A parent, a loved one? In the team room a mat was laid out on the floor where people could place photos of their personal inspiration. The result? A team that never flinched, even when the blue whirlwind was at full intensity in the opening 40 minutes.
There was also talk of disrespect from their opponents, real or imagined, and the tone was set. No one is slicker off first-phase starter plays than Leinster, as they demonstrated in that sharp early purple patch which yielded tries for Dan Sheehan (two) and Jimmy O’Brien. But their pack has been physically bullied and worn down at crucial moments in the past and here was another costly example as Danty, Seuteni and, with eight minutes left, the equally gargantuan George-Henri Colombe applied the muscular coup de grâce.
It was all two or three rungs up quality-wise from the average Premiership contest and Leinster’s latest disappointment has to be seen in that relative context. But suddenly the much vaunted Leinster way has not hoisted a single trophy in two seasons and managed just one European title since 2011. While Leo Cullen is waving goodbye to the estimable Stuart Lancaster and welcoming the current Springbok coach, Jacques Nienaber, to his coaching staff, there have been too many narrow losses in big games, particularly with O’Gara in the other coaching box, for anybody’s comfort. “You can have data for everything but you don’t have data for character,” O’Gara said afterwards.
Talking of character, would the outcome have been any different had a fit Johnny Sexton been available? Quite possibly, particularly given a 17-0 cushion with which to work. Leinster, one point behind with five minutes left, turned down a long-range penalty having already misjudged a couple of kicks out of hand. The 78th-minute rush of blood that led to Michael Ala’alatoa rightly being handed a red card for a shoulder to the head of Colombe was a further snapshot of Leinster’s fraying composure.
Then again, Sexton is now 37 and is retiring at the end of this year anyway. His final Leinster appearance could now be at a disciplinary hearing should European Professional Club Rugby decide to take further action following a half-time bust-up near the referee’s room also allegedly involving O’Gara and other coaches and players. It may be another day or two before a further official update emerges, leaving everyone else to ponder how best to stop France’s oval-ball giants from trampling all and sundry. Worryingly for the rest of the world, there is little obvious sign of an antidote.