Leinster blow it as Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle come from 17 points down to win the Champions Cup
Leinster 26 La Rochelle 27
Stuart Lancaster told us last Monday that he has learned 189 lessons during his time with Leinster. He’ll have as many regrets after this final collapse on home soil.
They led by 17 points after 12 minutes. Sixteen approaching half-time, but somehow their grip on the trophy was slowly, but surely broken by the relentless force of Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle.
They finished with 13 men after Ronan Kelleher was sin-binned and Michael Ala’alatoa saw red at a pivotal moment and Johnny Sexton’s final act in blue was to admonish referee Jaco Peyper for his role.
But Leinster need to look closer to home. They started like a train, but then pulled into the station to wait for the fifth star to arrive. La Rochelle dominated the game from there on in and when George Henri Colombe’s try arrived it had felt like it was coming for some time.
It had all felt so different early on and it only took 41 seconds for Leinster to announce their arrival with devastating effect, refusing to ease their way into the match as they punished La Rochelle’s inattention at the first lineout to put the grounded Jack Conan through a gap and he drew the last defender and sent Dan Sheehan over.
Byrne converted and was up again within seven minutes as Conan returned the restart with interest and they worked a sublime 50:22 for James Lowe who found touch on the 5m line.
A yellow hand disrupted, but from the scrum Leinster went for the jugular again and Hugo Keenan went close before a beautiful Byrne pass found Jimmy O’Brien to score.
This time, the conversion struck the post but the relentless waves kept coming and La Rochelle were reduced to 14 when they played their way into trouble and Josh van der Flier forced a despairing Tawera Kerr-Barlow to come in from the side.
The scrum-half went off and, within seconds, Sheehan was crossing for his second in the corner. Byrne again struck the post with the conversion, but at 17-0 after 12 minutes it barely registered.
Little did everyone know.
The visitors needed a break and, when Caelan Doris coughed up a penalty and Lowe knocked on they got the scrum they needed.
After two resets, they forced a penalty and packed down again. This time when it collapsed, they were told to attack and the powerful Jonathan Danty forced his way past O’Brien to score.
Referee Jaco Peyper waved away James Ryan’s complaints about crossing as Antoine Hastoy made it a 10-point game, but Leinster were playing the ref better at the breakdown and the crowd reacted to footage of O’Gara’s frustration in the coaching box as Byrne kicked two penalties to make it a 16-point game.
The lead wouldn’t last and, with Ryan forced off with a head injury, Leinster were forced to spend the closing stages of the half on the back foot.
Keenan cannily denied Paul Boudehent but, just before half-time, the holders worked their best attacking sequence of the day to work a try for Seuteni and Hastoy converted to make it 23-14 at the interval.
They took the momentum into half-time and almost scored a try within minutes of the restart, only for Keenan to deny Seuteni with his finger-tips.
Hastoy kicked a penalty, Byrne cancelled it out from a scrum penalty, but errors from Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw allowed Hastoy to nail another.
Leinster looked rattled and despite brilliance on the deck from Sheehan and van der Flier they just couldn’t get out of their half.
La Rochelle kept coming and eventually the pressure told; La Rochelle minced Leinster’s scrum on its own put in and Greg Alldritt picked up and charged forward. Doris was harshly penalised at a ruck and Hastoy went to the corner.
Three lineouts resulted in three penalties and, when Colombe forced his way over and Hastoy kicked the winning conversion, the blow was doubled as Kelleher was sin-binned for coming in from the side of the maul.
With seven minutes remaining, Leinster went in search of a winner and got a break when Danty was shown yellow for a high shot on Doris.
Byrne kicked to the corner, Ngatai went close but the momentum was lost when Ala’alatoa connected with Colombe’s head at a ruck.
He was shown red, the men in yellow marched their way out of trouble and into the winners’ enclosure again.
For Leinster, it’s another summer filled with deep, deep regret.
Scorers – Leinster: D Sheehan 2 tries; J O’Brien try; R Byrne con, 3 pens, La Rochelle: UJ Seuteni, J Danty, GH Colombe try each; A Hastoy 3 cons, 2 pens.
Leinster:H Keenan; J O’Brien (D Sheehan 79), G Ringrose, R Henshaw (C Ngatai 62), J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park (L McGrath 79); A Porter (C Healy 79), D Sheehan (R Kelleher 69), T Furlong (M Ala’alatoa 45); R Molony, J Ryan (capt) (J Jenkins 30); C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan (R Baird 60).
La Rochelle:B Dulin; D Leyds, UJ Seuteni, J Danty, R Rhule; A Hastoy, T Kerr-Barlow; R Wardi (J Sclavi 60), P Bourgarit (Q Lespiaucq Brettes 66), U Atonio (GH Colombe 60-79); R Sazy (T Lavau 50), W Skelton; P Boudehent (U Dillane 66), L Botia (R Bourdeau 70), G Alldritt (capt).
Referee:J Peyper (South Africa).