I’ve all but exhausted ways to kick the can that is this writeup down the road as much as I could. A combination of the Sunday afternoon kickoff, Bank Holiday Monday and social media boycott allowed me to switch my weekly offering from Monday to Tuesday, so all that’s left would be cancelling it altogether and we definitely can’t be having that.
So harp on this I must, and I have to say that this 80 minutes is definitely a curious journey. Those who were posting online at the time were focusing on one particular portion of the match and expanding it to fit their own narratives like “It’s the Pro14s fault” but I have to say on second watch the margins in this contest were a lot finer than they seemed as the fulltime whistle blew, not that it’s much consolation of course.
Maybe it’s best that I start in that critical time period, which for me was from minute 52 to 65. Going into it, we had the lead, 16-15, and naturally a lot happened before that and I will get to it. But this was cup rugby and while we are used to holding bigger advantages at that stage of a match, we still have a strong reputation as a side able to bring it home.
But then Will Skelton and brushed past Ryan Baird. I mean really ploughed through him. And this certainly isn’t meant to criticise Baird. If anything it’s a compliment because it shows just how unstoppable the massive tree of an Aussie was getting as the match wore on.
Then a few phases later it looked as though Les Maritimes were going to find a way through until James Lowe made a superb tackle on Dillyn Leyds which seemed to give our defence time to regroup yet while he had his hands up to show he was trying to roll away, referee Matthew Carley decided he was trapping the ball with his feet.
So after the play went on and a crossfield kick very nearly ended up with a try in the corner after a heartstopping error from Larmour came to nothing, Carley went back and not only gave the home side a penalty but also sent Lowe to the naughty step. A very very very harsh call IMO. Yes, of course I’d say that, but I’m still saying it and to be clear it's not like I'm saying it necessarily cost us the match. You normally get mitigation if one player is pinning you into the ruck - you could argue that Lowe had four.
All of which meant that Isiah West was able to put his side back in the lead with his 6th 3-pointer (one of which was an opportunistic drop goal in the first half) and now it was a question of whether or not they could finally breach our defence with the benefit of an extra man.
Well it turned out they could, but not without our help. First a high tackle gave them a chance to add another three but from quite a distance West’s effort had the legs but just not quite the accuracy as it hit the upright. It fell to Henshaw who was able to tidy but skipper for the day Luke McGrath put his clearance out on the full.
Still, La Rochelle muddled the lineout throw in our 22 so we had a chance to clear again, and from this clearance we actually managed to win it back again only for poor protection at the breakdown allowing their starting hooker Bougarit (pushing Skelton close for Star of the Match IMO) to jackal a penalty and put us back under the kosh.
Then they screwed up another lineout only for McGrath to struggle with yet another box kick which barely got to the 22. Now they get their maul to find our weak points like they had in the first half and it wasn’t long before they were laying siege to our line yet again.
If there’s one defence you can back to keep a side out in this situation it’s Leinster and to be fair we didn’t make things easy for our hosts even here. At one point it looked as though they barged over but the TMO couldn’t find a grounding so it was back for a 5m scrum. Again this is a technical point but the Lowe card was flashed at 54 minutes while this TMO check was at 64 so technically he should have been back on for this scrum, not that it would have prevented what happened next.
Eventually we cracked in simple enough fashion. Strong carry by their number 8 Vito, a phase or two and eventually it was Aldritt getting it over. Took this massively talented outfit 65 minutes, a questionable yellow and our inability to clear our lines so I’d hardly call this outcome “inevitable”, but it was certainly the moment when the match really got away from us.
And what makes it all even more frustrating was that we had started so well and actually had everything pretty much under control, which annoyingly brings the 2019 final to mind. Literally from the kickoff we put our preparation to the test as Ross Byrne sent up an absolute peach of a drop kick which had enough hang time for the ball to be completely lost in the sun and with a great chase backing it up we forced them to hand us an attacking lineout at the 22.
But even though we were to win a penalty shortly after the lineout, there was one worrying aspect to our set move. Robbie Henshaw didn’t gain any metres with his crash ball. I honestly didn’t think I’d be typing those words in a writeup at all this season. And as the half wore on it was clear their coaching ticket with its connections to both Munster and Leinster had found a way how to snuff him out so we had to get more creative.
Still, although Ross Byrne was unable to convert that early three pointer, we kept the pressure on, forcing the home side to ship a good few penalties in the opening spell, enough to persuade Carley to give them a very early warning, one which they couldn’t heed as Wiaan Liebenberg saw yellow and we also were able to quickly avail of the extra man as Furlong barged his way over. 7-0 ahead after 8 minutes was exactly the start we needed though clearly it was never going to be enough, just ask Exeter (who in turn could ask Lyon).
Here is where it really needed to be pointed out that this La Rochelle team could never be judged by a lack of stars on its jersey. Over the years they have improved thanks to excellent coaching and recruitment to a team that is comfortably in the top 2 of the Top14 so you can be sure we were under no illusions going into this match. Seven points was never going to be close to a cushion.
And when the home side had a maul which travelled well into our half leading to a penalty which allowed West to kick the first of his 22-point haul on the day, and not long after he got his drop goal to show they were well able to keep their side of the scoreboard moving, it was even more clear we had to find a good few more scores.
Ross Byrne’s perfect restarts continued throughout the half and we did manage two more penalties from them but with the French side keeping pace with us there is absolutely no question we at very least needed a second try. And something those who say we were completely outclassed neglect to point out is that we came very close on more than one occasion.
First we had a penalty advantage which inspired Ross to hit one of his trademark crossfield kicks. It was heading perfectly towards James Lowe’s running line and even bounced straight but the winger just seemed a fraction ahead of it at the critical moment and the chance was gone.
With Henshaw’s crash ball off the menu we had to improvise to find space and especially in the first half we were actually mixing things up pretty well although too many times our support work wasn’t great allowing the likes of Bougarit and Kerr-Barlow to jackal their side out of trouble.
But when Leyds fluffed his lines yet again on a Byrne restart towards the end of the half we produced our best backline move of the match, sweeping the ball from one end of the pitch to another when Lowe flung one to Larmour on the wing and his surge into the 22 meant “all he had to do” was hit his captain McGrath back on the inside and we’d be in. The pass was a fraction off and another big try scoring opportunity fell by the way side. This was critical as it could have put us into the break with a two-score advantage.
Finally there was a high ball that dropped around the La Rochelle 22 at the beginning of the second half. Had it been taken by Ryan Baird there would have been a touch of luck about it for us but he couldn’t gather it unfortunately so the third time really wasn’t a charm. But as you can see, it wasn’t like we were without our chances.
Which means that for all the confirmation bias-fuelled opinions we’re seeing from certain quarters, mostly from Irish ones I hate to say, like those which are desperately trying to point to our supposed inability to front up to powerful teams (then what happened at Sandy Park?), I really do think the answer is a lot simpler.
Yes, we were out-muscled at several points of the match (including one monster scrum), and yes, we had areas where we are used to making things happen completely shut down. Like I said, these were no pretenders we were playing, rather a serious outfit who were more than ready for a final four European clash. For me, we set ourselves up in such a way as to rely on our own accuracy, and that doesn’t actually sound like a bad plan because we have succeeded several times before. Yet on this day, it failed us.
Some loose ends to tie up from the 80 minutes - there were a couple of hits on Furlong that were definitely worth a look if not by the TMO then at very least us. French TV directors are notorious for being selective with their replays. At one stage it looked like Tadhg might be in trouble but once the officials ruled he wasn’t leading with his arm, there was a shot from Skelton at the next breakdown which was definitely suspect.
Then we had the early withdrawal of Rhys Ruddock, which piled on to our already considerable injury count. Again I don’t mean to insult Baird who came on to replace him, it's just with the massive pack the home side had, we definitely needed every minute from every forward we could get out there; in fact I was a bit surprised we didn’t go for a 6/2 split on the bench. On a side note, it was definitely a bad week in many ways for James Ryan to have a quiet outing by his standards.
Going back to the “It’s the Pro14s fault” thing, of course there is a case to be made for having a better all round standard in our domestic league, and what’s more, we could have probably benefited from having played Toulon in the last 16 to help us prepare for this one.
So I suppose what I’m trying to say is that as Leinster fans we have a choice. We can buy in to the schadenfreude-inspired opinions out there which suggest we’re completely unable to perform when the going gets tough these days, or we can acknowledge that while we fell short in areas where we would expect to thrive, we also managed to be a bounce of the ball and/or a different call from the ref away from being in another European final.
Over the past four seasons, Leinster have managed every Champions Cup knockout outcome possible : winners, runners-up, quarterfinalist, semifinalist. In each of those seasons we have also been league champions. Obviously we want to be adding more stars but that’s still not a bad bloody haul in my book.
What’s important now is that Leo, Stu and the boys can take the lessons from this outing, see out the season by giving the Rainbow Cup the best shot they can with the players available, and prepare for the next campaign when, with fingers, toes, eyes and everything crossed, we can be there in person at the RDS to cheer them on to the next set of big European matches because I don’t know about you but I reckon the #DriveForFive is still very much alive. JLP