Leinster were beaten by La Rochelle in last year’s Champions Cup final
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The surface wounds of a bruising afternoon have long since healed but the thumping bass beats of French celebration still echo in the dark reaches of Leinster heads. 12 months ago in Marseille, the Dublin club were minutes from a fifth Champions Cup crown, but the might of La Rochelle eventually told. As they prepare to reacquaint themselves with familiar foes on European rugby’s biggest stage this weekend, revenge is on the mind.
“When you work with a collective group to try and get somewhere and you fall at the last hurdle, it’s hard, especially when it’s like that, a few minutes from the end of the game,” said Leinster scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park this week.
“It’s one of those things that’s mentioned all the time with great teams over the years, the way they use defeats and having it spur you on for the next year. You live for those moments where you get to lift trophies and you enjoy those moments in the dressing room with your brothers. But the sombre feelings after a defeat stick with you as well.”
So back into battle these two will go with the big Eurodance this year coming to Irish shore. It sits a little uneasily, perhaps, that Leinster will complete their European knockout campaign without once having to leave their home patch but the location was decided long ago – and Dubliners might well make the point that it was La Rochelle who enjoyed the partisan audience last year.
For a side not much used to losing this must have been a strange week. Not only are there the demons of last year to exorcise but there is domestic frustration, too, after a largely second-string side were pipped by Munster in the United Rugby Championship semi-finals last weekend.
Precisely the grinning face that Leinster would least like to see at this moment would be Ronan O’Gara, then, the Munster great back in the Irish capital hoping his band of Atlantic coast privateers can defend their title. The former fly-half has done outstanding work at La Rochelle, getting the best out of a squad of misfits with a game predicated on power and keeping the ball alive.
His successors in Munster red may have tripped up Leinster last week but O’Gara knows his team will not be afforded an opposition short of full strength: “Obviously, Leinster will be disappointed by that, but their focus has been on winning in Europe and they’ve made their plan that that was the team they were going for.
“Last weekend, there were 12 Leinster internationals in the stands for the game against Munster. Munster won, but it wasn’t against Leinster’s strongest side. It will be a completely different team.
“We’re expecting the best version of Leinster and the best version of them is a formidable task. We know how difficult it is going to be, but we want to test ourselves against the best.”
O’Gara’s side tend to thrive off the cuff, but it will be their ability to disrupt Leinster’s more structured prose that could decide the encounter. La Rochelle brutalised and bothered Saracens at the breakdown in their quarter-final meeting to such a degree that the England club never at all settled into their game. Their megafauna, led by twin behemoths Uini Atonio and Will Skelton on the tighthead side, could create the carrion on which Levani Botia and co. so keenly feed.
But few are able to slow Leinster’s precise tick when the cogs begin to turn. This will be Stuart Lancaster’s last match as Leinster head coach before he packs off to Paris and Racing 92 – the work the former England coach has done to build a champion side in parallel with Leo Cullen deserves a winning farewell.
With so much shared in the twisted Irish green and Leinster blue helices, the manner in which the national side unpicked France will be readily recalled. There may be no Johnny Sexton, cotton wooled until important autumn international business, but Ross Byrne has enjoyed perhaps his best season yet at fly-half and will have a fully loaded forward phalanx at his disposal. With so much of the squad having already experienced one special Dublin day this year, there’s every chance of another.
“There is a great atmosphere in the group, people are excited for Saturday,” flanker Josh van der Flier explained. “So much work has gone into getting a team good enough to get to the final and hopefully we can put in as a big a performance as we can. It will be incredibly special to be playing the final in Dublin and have all our family there.”
Glasgow and Toulon to meet in Challenge Cup decider
The Friday night hors d’oeuvres for European rugby’s finals weekend sees Glasgow and Toulon clash. The Challenge Cup can sometimes feel like the odd and unloved little sister of the prestigious primary prize, but there is every chance it again delivers a fun final.
Toulon may no longer quite be the it club of European rugby but there are still more than a handful of Galacticos in their squad, and few would begrudge Sergio Parisse one last trophy hoist with his chances of an international swansong with Italy now faint.
But the highly underrated Franco Smith has again forged a team at Glasgow capable of multitudes, with a largely Scottish backline accented by a pair of Argentines in Domingo Miotti and Sebastian Cancelliere, a standout all year. Also of note might be a bulky bench, with Richie Gray and Rory Darge among six forwards ready to deliver a strong finish if required.
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