Friday, May 27, 2022

Champions Cup Final Preview


It all makes sense now.

Leinster's form in Europe this season has been "next level". I've been harping on it after every performance from the opener against Bath to the semifinal a couple of weeks ago against the reigning champions.

Obviously the ghosts of campaigns past have inspired Leo, Stu & co to both set and create these standards. Maybe as fans we'd rather forget how we got eliminated in 2019, 2020 and 2021, but it's clear that those involved with the province have used the memory of every minute of each one to spur them on.

But since it's one of those conquerors that now lies in our path, it has struck me that we may have actually taken that motivation a bit further.

With the possible exception of the super-blowout wins in January, when we might have been gone for "overkill" as a statement against the Covid cancellation, I actually think our European squads have been taking to the pitch with the intention of playing as if we were up against the likes of La Rochelle, no matter who our opposition actually was.

As if every time we went for crash ball, there would be a solid wall of yellow jerseys meeting us at the gain line. As if every time we tried to recycle, someone like Pierre Bougarit was ready to jackle a turnover. As if every time we faced opposition crash ball, it was the Will Skelton juggernaut rumbling at us.

Maybe this is just a hot take from someone who spends wayyyy too much time thinking about these things, but I reckon we've been preparing for Saturday's match since day 1 of preseason, and as fate would have it, we actually get to face our nemesis from last May.

If that's so, "all" that's left for us to do is put all that practice and preparation to good use at the Stade Vèlodrome. That's the trick, isn't it. Because no matter how much hard work they've done in advance, and I can't imagine any squad could have done more, there's still things like the final atmosphere, foreign soil, upwards of 30 degree heat and of course whatever ROG & co have lined up for us to contend with.

So let's start having a look at the side we're sending out, and what a statement it was to be able to name the exact same 23 from the semifinal after all the worry over the likes of Tadhg and James.

BACKS

What a day for Garry Ringrose to earn his 100th cap for Leinster eh? And as ever, his partnership with Robbie Henshaw will be key.

They make for a near perfect centre combination for the modern day game. A 12 who brings the crash ball, a 13 able to turn a hopeless play heading towards the right corner into an extremely hopeful one on the left in a matter of seconds. And together, they can snuff out the point of contact off set plays better than most.

But this is a side full of "key combinations" and with all due respect to Messrs McGrath & Byrne, our starting halfback pairing of Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton has to be the biggest difference between this side and that which started last year's semi-final.

Over and over again in these previews this season whether they've been wearing blue or green together, I've said the opposition has to find a way to stop those two setting the tempo if they are to have a hope of success, and so far nobody has been able to manage it.

And how could I ignore our back three of Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, and last but certainly not least Jimmy O'Brien, who has nailed down his jersey so much that nobody is batting an eyelid at Jordan Larmour's absence even after his display at the Aviva last weekend.

Not only are the trio more than capable of doing damage from all sorts of angles with ball in hand, they have also out fought many worthy opponents in the kicking game this season.

FORWARDS

In past Leinster finals there have been literal giants in our pack, our current head coach being one, but often we've relied on imports like Rocky, Nathan, Brad and Scott to bring that extra bit of muscle at the breakdown, and when Fardy left us at the end of last season, we may have wondered if we were being left a bit short in that area.

Well it wasn't long before Ross Molony made it clear we need wonder no more. He has been an absolute powerhouse all season and, a bit like JOB holding out Larmour, has absolutely made the jersey his own when others like Ryan Baird would be in contention. Maybe we could describe him as an "unsung hero", but if so, as fans we all need to start singing pretty damn quick.

Alongside James Ryan, Ross will be at the heart of our lineout plans - to date they have linked up incredibly well with Rónan Kelleher in an area where we have struggled in recent years, especially in attacking situations.

Speaking of RK, we were all delighted to see Tadhg Furlong in the starting lineup, although of course a lot can happen between now and kickoff time. Assuming they all stay fit, once again this is a unit that complements each other so well in every facet of the game.

It goes without saying that I'm not done with heaping praise on Leinster units that work well together. How about that back row, eh? If you told me during the Six Nations campaign that all three from Caelan Doris, Josh VDF & Jack Conan would be fit to start the Champions Cup final, I wouldn't have believed you. If you fancy a bet on "Star of the Match" and you don't go for one of these three, well, good luck to you.

BENCH

With all this talk of units, while the bench features multiple different positions, for this particular Leinster side I like to think of this group of 8 as one because despite having used 60 players in the two competitions, our defensive integrity has generally been as strong in the last few minutes as it has in the first, even in matches where victory has long been assured.

And here there's a name which would have raised an eyebrow in a Leinster 23 at the start of the season yet absolutely belongs there, that of Joe McCarthy. Not sure a young player could possibly get a bigger show of faith from his coaches than he has done in these knockout stages and he has most definitely earned it.

OPPOSITION

You'd like to think a team which reaches a major final should be able to concentrate on the same style of play that got them this far, but considering what they are up against here, you have to think La Rochelle's main aim will be to prevent us as much as they can from doing what we like to do.

And with ROG at the helm, while I think the whole "him v Johnny" bit has been over hyped in certain quarters, you can be sure they will come out with a few tricks up their sleeve.

Not that they don't have several ways to hurt us of course, I have already mentioned Skelton and Bougarit, yet while they will regret not having the likes of Kerr-Barlow and Vito, there's still tons of talent in the form of Dulin, Ruhle, Antonio and skipper Gregory Aldritt.

I'd say their biggest worry is that negating our strength in one area of the game might not be anywhere near enough as we'll be able to come at them in two or three alternative ways.

BUT...however much I might be saying Leinster are favourites at kickoff, if you think for a split second I don't see any way the Top 14 side can win this match you'd be very much mistaken.

WEATHER

From the looks of it there will be classic South of France weather around kickoff time, though not too humid and possibly a tad gusty.


PREDICTION

On our podcast during the week I spoke to a panel of Leinster fans and I think the best way to describe their take on the match is that they struck a perfect balance between "quietly" and "overly" confident.

For the most part they said they really don't care what kind of margin we win by, just that we do, and I have to say I'm in complete agreement. But if put on the spot to predict a winning margin, which I guess this category kind of does, I'd go a little under the bookies' prediction of 11 points and say we can do it by 6-8pts.

If we can manage to really click on the day, that could be more, but this wonderful game has so many variables which can go wrong that I'm actually starting to doubt myself so I'd better move on to the next heading before I make it even lower!!!!

WHERE TO WATCH

Obviously I'd LOVE to be heading for Marseille as I type this and all the pictures from terminals and buses and such on social media is giving me major FOMO but then again I'll be happy enough when seated with a group of friends in front of a big screen come kick off time. I'm normally not too fussy about broadcasters but I think my order of choice from the selection would be VM>CH4>BT.

GET INVOLVED IN THE DISCUSSION

As always I'll be tweeting throughout the match so throw in your two cents as well and also at the full time whistle head on over to the Facebook page and leave your thoughts. Hopefully they'll be happy ones.

Right, that's about all the re-match harping I can do. Exactly 24 hours left to kickoff as I type this sentence. It can't go by quickly enough. See you on the other side!!!! JLP

La Rochelle : 15. Brice Dulin, 14. Dillyn Leyds, 13. Jérémy Sinzelle, 12. Jonathan Danty, 11. Raymond Rhule, 10. Ihaia West, 9. Thomas Berjon
1. Dany Priso, 2. Pierre Bourgarit, 3. Uini Atonio, 4. Thomas Lavault, 5. Will Skelton, 6. Wiaan Liebenberg, 7. Matthias Haddad, 8. Grégory Alldritt (c).
Replacements: 16. Facundo Bosch, 17. Reda Wardi, 18. Joel Sclavi, 19. Romain Sazy, 20. Remi Bourdeau, 21. Arthur Retiere, 22. Levani Botia, 23. Jules Favre.

Heineken Champions Cup 2021/22 - FINAL
Saturday, May 21, 2022
Kickoff 5:45pm 
Stade Vèlodrome, Marseille

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
AR1: Matthew Carley (England)
AR2: Christophe Ridley (England)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)

Broadcasters: France 2 / beIN SPORTS / BT Sport / Channel 4 / Virgin Media / Sky Italia

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019