Leinster are better armed for battle with Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle this time
You’d be mad not to put the threat from La Rochelle in the red alert category in Marseille on Saturday. The damage they did to Leinster up front a year ago was illustrative of what it takes to be a contender in the Top 14: relentless biff delivered by a queue of bullies who do this kind of thing for a living.
Equally it makes no sense that the Leinster experience of last May is set on automatic replay. Park for a moment the quality of their current form, and look at the men who had no part to play in the semi-final defeat in Stade Marcel Deflandre. If you make seven changes to your match day 23 it’s reasonable to expect something different. Which is exactly the state of mind of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.
In his always excellent column in the Irish Examiner last week, Ronan O’Gara referred to his players’ impression of the Leinster win over Toulouse: the five time winners of the Heineken Champions Cup were dipping into a well close to empty. This is not something Leinster would be familiar with.
Last season, for example, they were happy to rest many of the front-liners in the Rainbow Cup — remember that little competition? — at home to Munster. Still they were knocked around a week later in France.
This time, coincidentally again versus Munster last night, they went postal on clearing the decks of lads needed for duty in France next weekend. The critical difference, however, is that the changes from last year’s loss in La Rochelle fundamentally alters the look of the squad.
Swapping Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park for Ross Byrne and Luke McGrath is a seismic shift given the form of the first-choice pair. If you can bring all four to the gunfight — last season the back up of Rowan Osborne and Ciarán Frawley never got off the bench — then you have loads of ammunition.
Up front the picture is significantly different. The starting front row of Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong has been central to the form of both Leinster and Ireland.
The arrival of Dan Sheehan as reserve hooker is part of the package. Add Cian Healy as a replacement and Michael Ala’alatoa and it’s a serious sextet. Sheehan and Ala’alatoa were not there last season and Porter was on the bench.
In the second-row, Ross Molony is in the spot occupied a year ago by Devin Toner. Molony is not in the destroyer class but he’s a very good player in top form. By the time Toner got to La Rochelle last season he was already well past his best, and it showed.
In the back-row too there is a big bonus in the shape of Caelan Doris being fit for service. His impact was badly missed in that semi-final when Leinster needed a dynamic stopper as well as an explosive carrier.
The absence of Tawera Kerr-Barlow through injury robs O’Gara of a go-to player (and there are still questions also over Will Skelton’s fitness) then the chief point of concern for Cullen is the fitness of Furlong. If his ankle doesn’t mend in time it could be a game-changer for the trickle down effect of who would be coming off the bench.
The other item to cost Cullen sleep will be how things pan out with referee Wayne Barnes. It can only be better than it was under Matthew Carley 12 months ago.
It might be useful to have Barnes on hand given his self-assurance in the face of getting it in the neck from a French crowd. That pressure wouldn’t cause him to miss a beat.
Barnes’ game plan was to referee the 2019 World Cup final and then get on with the next phase of his life. England getting to the final scuppered that, so now his focus is on France next year.
Cullen and Co are looking no further than France on Saturday.