“This is your f***ing Everest, boys. Very few ever get a chance in rugby terms to get to the top of Everest. You have the chance today.” – Jim Telfer
Leinster Rugby is at the foot of what is club rugby’s equivalent of Everest, a grueling campaign that began in the deepest darkest winter and has led to this very moment.
The Everest standing in their way is an all too well-known foe who has crushed their spirit in the previous two campaigns.
La Rochelle, led by Munster legend Ronan O’Gara has become the Dubliner’s boogiemen. Picking up where the once-powerful Saracens left off. The team from the ruggedly beautiful French coastal town has battered their silky smooth Irish counterparts with waves of giant men.
Whilst it took the full eighty minutes for La Rochelle to claim their maiden title in last year’s installment of the final, they did so by forcing Leinster to be un-Leinster-like.
A routine clearance from a miscued Brice Dulin that the Dubliners would normally handle with their eyes closed caught captain Jonathan Sexton off guard. As he popped the ball to the supporting Hugo Keenan, a calamity of errors would see Leinster’s eight-point advantage whittle down to just one point.
Having worked so hard to get more than one score clear, Leinster would never regain more than a four-point advantage. As one expects from an O’Gara-coached team, La Rochelle remained in the fight, and as the clock ticked down with them camped on the Leinster line, there was an air of inevitability a chance would present itself.
The rest, as they say, is history, now, both sides remain on the precipice of history.
For Leinster, pulling level with Toulouse as the greatest side in the competition in front of their home fans is as grand a lure as any.
La Rochelle, on the other hand, have the feeling of a side at the beginning of what could morph into a dynasty.
All that remains is a titanic meeting of the clear-cut top two sides in European and South African rugby.
Leinster Rugby, La Rochelle Team News
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has rung the changes to the side that was edged by archrivals Munster in last weekend’s United Rugby Championship semi-final.
In total, there are 12 changes as he reverts to a side that resembles the one who comprehensively defeated Toulouse in the semi-final.
In the front row, the first-choice Irish international trio of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong renew their combination.
Behind them, James Ryan and Ross Molony form a dynamic second row, with powerful Springbok international Jason Jenkins providing cover from the bench.
Interestingly in the back row, Cullen has opted for the Irish international trio of Caelen Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan. Whilst there is no surprise the three are involved, given their quality, there have been questions about playing Doris out of his preferred position of number eight to accommodate Conan.
The halfbacks will see Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne link up once again with Luke McGrath and Ciaran Frawley on the bench.
Having made his return last week from injury, Robbie Henshaw joins Irish international teammate Garry Ringrose in the centres.
Out wide James Lowe returns from injury to join Jimmy O’Brien on the wings, with Hugo Keenan pulling the strings from fullback.
For the visitors, O’Gara has made two changes to the side that overpowered the Exeter Chiefs in the semi-final.
At halfback, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Antoine Hastoy will manage the tactics for the side as they look to put their forwards in striking range of the Leinster line.
Crucially for the champions, influential French international Jonathan Danty starts at the center in place of Paul Boudehent. Partnering with Danty is the impressive UJ Seuteni, who has been remarkable this season.
Whilst the backline is completed by the dynamic trio of French international Brice Dulin and Springboks Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule.
In the pack, Reda Wardi, Pierre Bourgarit and Uini Atonio make up the front row, with Romain Sazy and Will Skelton at lock and Boudehent, Levani Botia and Alldritt in the back row.
Leinster Rugby vs. La Rochelle Prediction
Gathering steam this week, La Rochelle is now the bookies’ favorite to win a second title.
How much this is based on Leinster’s loss last week is hard to tell, but ultimately judging this Leinster side by that fixture is thoroughly illogical. Given the significant changes to the side that ran out last weekend, it would be reasonable to expect a far more polished performance.
Additionally, the removal of the favourites tag will suit Cullen’s side, who are already under a seemingly insurmountable amount of pressure.
Clearly, both sides have improved since their last meeting, with La Rochelle nipping at the heels of Toulouse atop the Top 14 table.
The biggest upgrade for the French side is at flyhalf, with Hastoy providing a significant kicking upgrade over last year’s number ten Ihaia West.
With the ball in hand, Hastoy has shown he is no slouch, and he has come on leaps and bounds in the game management stakes under O’Gara.
Whilst the clash could come down one big moment, there is quite a lot working in Leinster’s favour. Emotionally this will be a major fixture for several reasons, most notably, it is Jonathan Sexton and Stuart Lancaster’s final fixture involved with the province.
The final factor in play is the weather conditions which by all accounts played its part in last year’s final. Thus, the 16C and cloudy forecast will be a welcome sight for Irish eyes.
Throw in the fact that the URC title is now gone, it is unfathomable that there will be back-to-back seasons without silverware in Dublin. This one will be tight, but Leinster will get their fifth star. Leinster by 6.
Leinster Rugby vs. La Rochelle Line-Ups:
Leinster: H Keenan; J O’Brien, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; R Molony, J Ryan (capt); C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan.
Replacements: R Kelleher, C Healy, M Ala’alatoa, J Jenkins, R Baird, L McGrath, C Frawley, C Ngatai.
La Rochelle: B Dulin; D Leyds, UJ Seuteni, J Danty, R Rhule; A Hastoy, T Kerr-Barlow; R Wardi, P Bourgarit, U Atonio; R Sazy, W Skelton; P Boudehent, L Botia, G Alldritt (capt).
Replacements: Q Lespiaucq Brettes, J Sclavi, G Henri Colombe, T Lavault, R Bourdeau, U Dillane, T Berjon, J Favre.