Leo Cullen’s side only have themselves to blame for loss
If there has been a more theatrical show around taking a conversion of a try in a top-class rugby game then it doesn’t readily spring to mind. You have to consider the context.
Beaten in the final last year by Toulouse, and looking then like a team who didn’t quite know how to deal with games of that magnitude, La Rochelle had every reason to think they would have to chalk this one up as another of those near misses teams have to endure before they hit the target.
The aggregate of small margins in this game added up to a hillock of game-changing moments. With 15 minutes to go they had lost second-row Thomas Lavault.
As Jamison Gibson-Park was chasing a kick deep into French territory, he came onto Lavault’s compass. Instead of letting him pass unmolested Lavault stuck out a foot to bring down the Leinster nine like a passenger aircraft hit by a stray missile.
At the time it looked like secure passage for Leinster towards a fifth Heineken title, and a place in the executive European lounge alongside Toulouse. At a stroke – a fairly stupid stroke in fairness – Leo Cullen’s team had been gifted a magic pill that rendered the migraine of the scrum a mere headache.
Yes, La Rochelle would put eight sets of shoulders to the wheel on their own put-in, and centre Jonathan Danty didn’t look out of place on the side of the scrum.
But on Leinster’s put-in La Rochelle would have to go with seven and forget about putting on pressure. That allowed Leinster not only avoid another issue with referee Wayne Barnes, but they could attack off the back of that solid scrum and lift the pace of the game against a side who often looked out on their feet.
There was one such golden moment for Leinster when Jack Conan got off the back at speed, unchallenged by anything in a white shirt, and immediately a range of possibilities presented themselves. But they got muddled by the choice and when they should have made a downpayment on extending their one-point lead, instead they turned the ball over.
The instant that little picture changed it must have sent a chill down the spine of Leo Cullen up in the coaches’ box. This is what champions do: they put away teams who are wide open to being put away. If not then the momentum shifts again.
So while Leinster took three points off the tee when Lavault slinked away, looking like the schoolboy whose smart remark had cost the whole class a truckload of homework, they couldn’t add to it. You couldn’t hear yourself think at times in the heat and tension of this magnificent stadium staging such a gladiatorial contest, but somewhere there was the sound of an alarm bell ringing.
By the time Ihaia West was orchestrating the countdown of the clock, before he tapped over the conversion to the game-winning try from Arthur Retiere, the alarm had been turned off. Then it was only about evacuating a few stragglers.
On the walk to the ground from the old port in the centre of Marseille Retiere’s name had cropped up in our conversation. Having been schooled by Declan Kidney – literally – Ronan O’Gara made much of the opportunity for both Thomas Berjon and Retiere when the coach lost the services of Tawera Kerr-Barlow with a broken hand in the semi-final against Racing.
Well how about that then, the man to add the killer touch was the third-choice number nine. That’s sport.
You can only imagine what it was like for Leinster standing behind the line waiting for those extras to be added. It was their third time to be there – an experience O’Gara’s lads were spared.
The previous try, from Pierre Bougarit, was entirely avoidable. Johnny Sexton found himself caught short when he needed to clear his lines, handed it to Hugo Keenan who was not having the happiest evening of his career, and he was done at the resulting tackle.
So they won’t be looking to shift blame on this one. Even at half-time, when they turned over 12-7 in front, they would have felt relieved at that state of affairs. We don’t know if the French have an equivalent of ‘swings and roundabouts’ but if they do then surely they were giving it some air in those last few minutes of a hectic first half.
It had been top-quality entertainment. A start that had La Rochelle nailed to the penalty cross by Barnes, followed by blessed relief for the hordes of Les Maritimes in the stands with a try on the first attempt.
Yes, there were a fair few stoppages in which players were desperate to get some air and some water in equal measure, but when they packed down four minutes from the break the stage was set for a French score.
As if sensing the importance of the moment Barnes blew for a reset rather than an attacking penalty, and then gave Leinster a penalty on the next one. Sure enough Leinster went down the far end straight way and worked a penalty of their own, which Sexton nailed.
When his fifth penalty put Leinster two scores ahead for the first time you thought they might kick on.
But they were nervous out of touch after Dan Sheehan saw his first throw – Rónan Kelleher was gone after 16 minutes – sail over the back. Thereafter they threw a fair bit to the front, from which it was hard to generate front-foot ball – the fuel of Leinster’s engine.
They never got the kind of sustained dominance they use to break teams. So La Rochelle finished the day centre stage, taking the applause. Leinster are still in the waiting room.