Only Leinster’s best will do to down Ronan O’Gara’s heavyweights
The actual prize fight may be taking place across the river, but this Champions Cup final is expected to live up to its heavyweight billing.
It is the third part of a trilogy, with the first two chapters unfolding on French soil, and Leinster will be hoping the presence of swathes of blue jerseys at the stadium today will help them get over the line.
It might not have had the smack-talk synonymous with the fight game, but there’s been some spice with recently retired Leinster player James Tracy questioning Ronan O’Gara’s side’s approach to the ruck and the coach responding by questioning his motives.
It was all about getting into referee Jaco Peyper’s head because the ruck is where this game will be won and lost.
La Rochelle know that if they can slow Leinster down through their size, they’ll be on their way.
Leinster are equally conscious that if they can keep the ball-in-play time high and get Jamison Gibson-Park involved quickly they can make hay.
That is the crux of the matter, but there are thousands of micro battles to be won before either team crosses the white line.
At home and with a large crowd backing them, Leinster are the bookies’ favourites.
They’ve been the season’s front-runners, blitzing everyone that’s been in their way and with their stars back in the set-up they will be confident of getting things right.
There’s a perception that their opponents have had more of a slow burn, but their performances against Saracens and Exeter Chiefs were impressive.
It’s true that they haven’t played anyone close to Leinster’s calibre this year, but equally the paucity of Toulouse’s performance in the semi-final suggests that Leinster haven’t met their measure yet either.
Last year’s final is instructive, but La Rochelle have eight changes from the team that played that day while Leinster have two with Ross Byrne taking over from the injured Johnny Sexton and Dan Sheehan swapping places with Rónan Kelleher.
Since Marseille, 14 of their starting team have won a Grand Slam with Ireland, 13 were on the historic tour of New Zealand. Their Ireland experiences will surely stand them in good stead today.
And yet, the pressure seems to sit squarely on their shoulders thanks, in part, to last Saturday’s United Rugby Championship semi-final loss to Munster.
Leo Cullen yesterday laughed off the suggestion that the defeat would seep into their week, but there’s no doubting that the timing of that result was far from ideal. Munster haven’t got the cattle that O’Gara does and he’ll have learnt a lot.
Leinster’s passivity in defence is a concern, their tendency to be thrown off when someone gets in and dirties their ball has been noted. Expect Will Skelton to throw himself into the defensive ruck with wilful abandon.
Leinster’s back three has plenty of stardust, but O’Gara’s Springbok wingers have pace and deception.
Jonathan Danty is one of the most destructive centres in the game, while UJ Seuteni has been an offloading revelation, but Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose’s combination is world-class
It’s a huge day for Ross Byrne, but so too for newcomer Antoine Hastoy. Beside them, either Tawera Kerr-Barlow or Gibson-Park could have a defining influence.
Up front, Leinster’s front-row look more dynamic but La Rochelle’s more grizzled options can be destructive in their own way.
Skelton is a phenomenon and his combination with the giant Uini Atonio is a force of nature. However, James Ryan and Ross Molony are in the form of their lives and Leinster’s bench looks far more potent this season.
The back-row match-ups are blockbuster, no more so than the phenomenal Fijian Levani Botia taking on the World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier.
There’s class everywhere, pedigree abounds but the absence of Sexton is a loss for Leinster on their biggest day.
There are no weaknesses in either coaching box, the benches are loaded and it’s set up to be a classic.
Both sides will believe they can win it. Discipline will be key, luck will play a role but for Leinster it’s about delivering when it matters and taking the game to La Rochelle for 80 minutes. They can’t let the French side get on top of them again, because that’s crushed them in chapters one or two.
Only their best will do and even then it might not be enough against a class La Rochelle side.