I can't start my writeup of this match without first removing the blue goggles and pointing out that this was truly one of the greatest finals this competition has ever seen.
Chances are none of us Leinster fans were thinking that as the full time whistle blew, but after allowing the disappointment to ease for a couple of days it really does have to be said.
Now, unfortunately, it is time to put the goggles back on as there are several different places out there where you can get a "neutral" perspective (or indeed biased in a different direction, not all from France either). Whether you are here to share my "gutted" feelings or to revel in them, I welcome you to my weekly bout of harpin' on Leinster rugby.
"...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....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."
According to some commentators we were "way too confident" going into this match, yet while I may have my own proof to the contrary in writing what with penning a preview and all, I can also guarantee that there wasn't a single supporter from the blue corner making any assumptions at kickoff.
Obviously there was a degree of confidence, with good reason. As our European opposition grew more and more powerful throughout the competition, starting with Montpellier and Bath in the pool stages, then Connacht, Premiership leaders Leicester and reigning champions Toulouse, we continued to play with the kind of accuracy and determination this great tournament has yet to see with such consistency, which is why pretty much every neutral observer had us as strong favourites.
However...there's another quote from my preview that needs repeating...
"...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."
While we as Leinster fans were enjoying our performances so far this season, other coaches, naturally, were analyzing them. And "re-writing the how to beat Leinster playbook" has been a challenge which has been embraced by many over the past few years, and two clubs have managed to get it done.
Isn't that how top level competitions are meant to work? No one team should ever completely dominate? We literally gave it our best shot to reach the final, and a nemesis rose to the occasion to get there ahead of us, and even then it literally took the very last play of the game for them to get it done.
That's what happened. I've seen many broader explanations offered, some of them old chestnuts, some new, from a long-put-to-bed Irish out half rivalry, tactical failures, strength of domestic opposition, as well as that supposed over confidence, but I truly believe it was simple. Two great teams went at it for 80 minutes, the lead exchanged hands a few times, and when a push came to a shove towards the end, the better team won. Just.
Now I've been stalling for long enough, time to fully "suffer for my art" by going through the 80 minutes one more time...
I've lost count of the amount of times Leinster have been the ones to concede a penalty or two in the opening minutes before we have even had the chance to do anything with the ball ourselves, well for once this match went the other way.
Having won the toss and chosen to take the kickoff, Johnny Sexton was able to start the match on his terms and sure enough we managed to create an attacking opportunity in their 22 within the opening two minutes - however, it came as no surprise that La Rochelle had also been preparing on the defensive side of things and it must have been a huge early boost for them that they forced a turnover.
But the ball still had to be cleared and for the first nine minutes the only way they could escape their half of the pitch was after Sexton kicked the first penalty and it wasn't long before he was popping over a second as the first four no-nos spotted by Wayne Barnes were committed by the Top 14 side.
For a side that was supposedly over-confident, we were very sensible in our decision-making in this spell - there may have been a temptation to go for maximum damage with this territory but as it was not only "cup rugby" but actually "cup final rugby", taking the three made perfect sense on both occasions.
Eventually they had their first go with the ball in our half and boy, did they make it count. With their own first penalty advantage they shipped it quickly to the wing where both wingers were ready to pounce...first Dillyn Leyds tempted Jimmy O'Brien into a tackle before "KBAing" it around the back to Raymond Ruhle who suddenly had enough space ahead of him to skip around Hugo Keenan and power to the line.
Just like that, our early lead was undone, and if indeed we did have any illusions that our line couldn't be breached, they were now well and truly gone.
During that opening spell, Ronan Kelleher's lineout linkups with both James Ryan and Ross Molony were impeccable, yet after the try one went awry and when shortly afterwards La Rochelle won a penalty at their first scrum put in, it really did look as though the tide of the match had completely shifted in the other direction.
But Leinster's defensive unit had clearly been revitalised after that early setback and on the next French possession, even with a few Will Skelton carries they couldn't stop themselves from being driven almost 20m back towards halfway before going into touch.
It was around this stage we lost Rónan Kelleher, for what was officially declared as a "tactical decision", though whatever the reason we were well served on the bench by Dan Sheehan. And on the second La Rochelle put in to a scrum we also found some answers to the earlier questions, with more strong covering and tackling by the blue monster forcing them to pass it out of play.
Next there was a penalty advantage for side entry after a lineout, and with it being too far out for a shot at goal, it meant Sexton could aim for the corner as the clock ticked past the 20 minute mark.
Worryingly this lineout also went askew for us but we got a real break as although La Rochelle collected the loose ball, they proceeded to get their wires crossed and hand us a penalty directly in front of the posts. Again I'm sure there was temptation to go for the corner but given the good fortune we had plus the central location it made sense to take the three and regain the lead.
Having survived our own first scrum put in despite another strong shove against us, we continued to press in their territory although the French side continued to hunt down our carriers again and again making it quite the battle. At one stage Sexton tried a little kick over the top which didn't quite fall for Keenan, then from the goal-line drop out, he even tried to replicate a long range drop goal from the 2009 final although he didn't connect.
For La Rochelle's part although they were still having troubles getting past our tacklers, they were mostly able to keep the phases going and Ruhle did manage to find one gap to put them deep in our 22 only for a neck roll on JGP allowing us to clear.
Then it was a clever lineout move that put Bougarit through up the touchline and again they were battering us on our try line before winning a penalty or two where naturally they took the scrum options until Tadhg Furlong actually got Dany Priso to slip up giving us a crucial clearing penalty.
And for this portion of the match at least, we had classic Leinster. Most teams would take a penalty 5m from their own line with 2m left on the clock as a sign to kill the half, especially with a lead in a major final, but from the lineout around halfway we had other ideas.
JOB found an inch of space out wide and kicked a beauty towards their tryline forcing Dulin to take it under pressure before he was clattered by JGP giving us a scrum in almost in the polar opposite location from the one we had just escaped. And when the La Rochelle front row went a shade early for the hit and we had a free kick, tap n go seemed the logical option and sure enough Dan Sheehan started hurtling towards the line.
"If they ship a penalty here it HAS to be a yellow card", said one Leinster mad blogger who shall remain nameless.
Well, the penalty did come, but alas the card did not, but given how the half had gone, to go into the "sheds" with a 5 point lead was far from the worst situation we could have been in.
What a half of cup final rugby. Fabulous. Delighted to be ahead, massive swing at the end there but we just about deserve the lead. Defending really well but SR well poised to punish any mistakes. Me nerves!#HeinekenChampionsCup— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) May 28, 2022
Many a mistake has decided a big match, but there are different kinds of mistakes.
Roughly speaking you could put them into two categories...mistakes coming from bad planning, and those coming from bad decisions made on the spot. Leinster made one type to start the third quarter and the other type to finish it and you could definitely make a case for them being decisive in the result.
So you're five points up in a major final and you know you're going to be receiving the kickoff. Surely the only option for dealing with the restart is to boot the leather off the thing as far away as possible, especially when you have Lowe's massive left boot plus well-renowned chasers and defenders at your disposal.
Yet we chose instead to run a few phases in our 22 and it wasn't long before La Rochelle, who clearly raised their own defensive standards to at least match our own, smelled blood in the water and before a minute had elapsed on the clock they won a penalty which West popped over to get the crucial first score after the break.
To be fair we did react well and a clever territory kick from JOB forced a lineout throw for us in their 22 and after subsequent phases under the posts...
"OK....well if they ship a penalty HERE it DEFINITELY has to be a yellow card"
Again yes to the penalty, again no to the card.
Also again, with the penalty right under the posts, and the La Rochelle defence the way it was, it still made sense to take the three points to restore the five point lead. Then a few minutes later a nice step from Henshaw got him around his tackler and he made it into their 22 once more before, guess what...
"No way should they get a yellow card if THIS turns into a penalty..."
I was trying reverse psychology this time, you see. It didn't work. Penalty only, and while I thought Barnes was at least issuing a warning to Aldritt, turns out he was actually explaining what the infraction was.
This was probably the biggest decision Sexton had to make over taking the points, but to be honest I actually think all of them were correct, though for varying reasons, mostly because the location was so central, but in this case there was the added advantage that it would stretch our lead to (what we thought was) the magic eight points.
Next we had the costly individual mistakes. After Ringrose darted his way into the opposition half he was jackled to a penalty and now La Rochelle were looking for any chance to have a run at our defence before it could settle so they quick tapped and kicked one deep into our 22.
Just to be clear - all rugby players, but especially at the highest level, need to be ready for the awkward bounce of a rugby ball. So you can't really say it's "bad luck" when it does something crazy. Still, as JOB tried to usher the ball out of play over the dead ball line hoping for a scrum back, it shot back towards his legs before going over the line.
From the goal line drop out (can I call these GLDOs now?) Dulin tried to do better than Sexton's first half attempt at a drop goal, and while he also missed, it really, really worked out well.
Being skipper, talisman and top medal winner on the park means your brain is bound to be working in overdrive while you're playing, although Johnny Sexton was doing that long before he fit any of those descriptions. So when it looked like Dulin's attempt was going to bounce over the dead ball line, I'd guess his thoughts were about how to execute the next series of plays.
However, the ball had other ideas, and on hitting the Marseille turf it actually shot back from whence it came, and while the fact that it headed straight for Sexton was a good thing in some ways, in others it meant he had to wake up to his situation really quickly and when he turned to see chasers coming at him, he felt he wouldn't have time to clear his lines.
So he shipped it on to Keenan, who by now had a swarm of white and yellow jerseys around him, and he couldn't evade them all before Barnes awarded them a penalty which meant although 8 points down they were now going into the final quarter with their tails up and a 5m lineout, because of course, they were not for taking the three.
And from that lineout, a powerful maul went straight over the Leinster line for their hooker Bougarit to get it down, with West adding the conversion to make it a one-point game.
Oh and you want to hear something funny? There was a penalty advantage against Caelan Doris coming had the maul not been successful so up in the BT Sport commentary Ben Kay thought we may have been "lucky not to have seen a card". Hilarious, Ben.
Just to clarify - if you think I'm having a serious pop at Wayne Barnes over the lack of yellow for too many penalties, that's not really the case - it's more like I'm setting myself up to explain what happens, or maybe doesn't happen, in that crazy final sequence.
Anyway so the match resumes with the margin just one point, and when La Rochelle next attack they get thwarted by Josh van der Flier, who deservedly went on to be crowned European Player of the Year.
Yet with both defences so tight, it was always going to amount to a kicking battle from here on in, and after a bout of tennis JGP sent one high into the opposition half, only to fall flat on his face while chasing. Why did he fall? Because a certain M Lavault did one of the most poorly disguised trips I've ever seen. Perhaps Wayne wasn't issuing yellows for repeated offences, but he had to produce one for this.
Sexton was no longer on the pitch to make decisions, having been replaced by Ross Byrne, so it was up to James Ryan to choose between 3 points or potentially more. With an extra man in the forwards we could definitely have fancied our chances with a lineout but again, the three points were so gettable that even here I'd have a hard time arguing against the decision.
Not gonna lie, when Ross popped that kick over, even with 15m left on the clock, I thought we were all but there. So maybe that's something you could call "over-confidence" but with the extra man I had to assume we'd at least be able to eke out one more score before the end. Only who could have predicted how that end would go???
Our first, and ultimately our only, attacking chance came from a scrum in our own half and we were working things nicely until Ross Byrne slightly over ran a pass from Jack Conan meaning a knockon, and when a JGP high tackle gave La Rochelle a penalty, little did anyone know that Leinster were not to cross the halfway line for the final 11plus minutes of the contest.
Please, please, please don't let this game hit the history books without appreciating the heroics performed by the Leinster defense in this time. Any other side would have conceded a try at least five minutes sooner if not more, and when it came to the penalties we gave away in that time, if you think we should have shipped a card I will guide you towards all those earlier times one didn't go the other way.
So from the penalty by JGP I guess the only way to describe the hectic final stages is with a more detailed timeline...
68:59 5m lineout > maul > pen adv > pen > put to touch again
70:23 5m lineout (James Ryan gets a hand to throw but knocks on) > phases > another penalty but this time central > scrum chosen
72:40 7m scrum (reset)
73:38 7m scrum > phases > pen adv > La Rochelle knock on > back for pen > scrum taken
75:15 5m scrum > pen adv at scrum > phases > knocked on at the line > back for pen > scrum taken
76:51 5m scrum > phases
78:17 On 12th phase, pen adv against Joe McCarthy illegal entry, LAR play on
78:46 On 16th phase, Retière stretches out and dots it down.
And that was that. With 90 seconds to take the conversion, the match was over.
Could I "do a Rassie" and forensically examine the La Rochelle forwards in that sequence at the end to see if they did at least as many illegal breakdown things as we did? I'm sure I could, and I'm sure I'd find plenty. But I think you can see from my account that there are plenty of reasons from our side of things which explain why we finished behind on the scoreboard, so there's really no point going on about that.
Again, I think the overview is quite simple - we came into the match having set a high bar, and La Rochelle matched it while taking their chances better to finish on top. The "three tries to nil" thing doesn't matter to me as much as it does to others, because while I'd never dispute that La Rochelle deserved the win, I would definitely speak up if anyone said it should have been by much more than three points.
Also again, I point to just how amazing this match was, a brilliant advertisement for the competition, and one that will be strengthened even further next season by the addition of the South African teams, and also Saracens (yes I mean that last one as a good thing, kind of). But whatever the strength of the other 2022/23 runners & riders, you can be damn sure none of them will be ruling out Leinster.
Next up is Glasgow in the URC quarterfinal. We obviously need to pick ourselves up quickly because we are still very much in the hunt for silverware.
But if you don't mind, recapping those final few minutes has not only reminded me of how I felt as it happened, it has also exhausted me as if I had made all those tackles myself, so I think I'll call it a day for now. Will harp some more on the pod during the week.
Félicitations encore à Stade Rochelais, here's to when we meet again! JLP
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