The runaway train we all knew about was slow out of the station and while it took ten minutes to pose a threat, by the final quarter it was pretty much brought to a halt. La Rochelle’s victory seemed inevitable.
If both had played to the maximum of their considerable ability, then, on all available evidence, Leinster had to win. Of course, that fairytale scenario didn’t ensue.
La Rochelle turned up with their ‘A’ game – fine-tuned by a technically astute coach who had delved into areas in preparation that no other side in the United Rugby Championship or Champions Cup can come close to.
On the biggest club stage of all and with Ronan O’Gara calling the most testing of shots, they delivered a performance fitting the occasion. It’s beyond dispute that the better team won.
Had Leinster made the finish line, courtesy of Johnny Sexton’s boot, no one would have complained such has been their expansive winning form over the course of the season.
However, when you lose out by three tries without crossing the whitewash even once in response, I think it’s pretty futile arguing the nub of the outcome. In the final analysis the side clocking over 60 per cent possession, thereby forcing the opposition and justifiable pre-match favourites into having to make a tackle ratio of significantly in excess of 2:1, took its toll at the death.
It speaks volumes of the tenacity and honesty with which the four-time winners took on what was coming their way.
In terms of desire and commitment, they were not found wanting but credit the La Rochelle think-tank – specifically the Irish duo of O’Gara and Donnacha Ryan, while Jono Gibbes spent spells with Ulster and Leinster – in getting the tactical balance so right when it mattered most.
It is easy to point to the obvious and La Rochelle’s relentless pressure at the breakdown but still they managed to threaten around the tramline edges better while squeezing the defensive line in midfield tighter than any other side Leinster had faced previously.
Here for sure was O’Gara’s mind at work. I have long maintained that as a player he never received the handling credit he deserved when opening up holes for others through short, long and varied distribution.
That passing ability may now lie dormant in the mind, but in Marseille his players – as he suggested in the aftermath – “finally get what this mad Irishman is about.”
ROG may be many things to many people but mad he is most definitely not.
It was an impressive coaching performance. As a top-class coach in his own right, he has well and truly come of age and precious few former playing greats in any code achieve that in the coaching sphere.
I fear it may never happen but what would we give to have him back at Munster? Against that, and much like Paul O’Connell, I suspect his time will come at international level through Lansdowne Road. Andy Farrell is doing a fantastic job but I doubt there is anyone anywhere who will argue against his case when, and if, that Ireland time comes.
From a Leinster perspective, it is easy to be wise after the event and yes they might have gone for the corner from some of the penalties successfully landed, but when assessing momentum at the time I think almost every call was the right one.
They didn’t play badly but there weren’t allowed play the way they wanted to and have been used to through the excellent coaching of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.
In a purely defensive mode there were massive contributions from Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Jimmy O’Brien, Jamison Gibson-Park (outstanding again), Josh van der Flier and indeed the entire back-row. But in pointing to Hugo Keenan and James Lowe being hardly mapped, it marks game, set and match to the Wild Geese of La Rochelle.
We did not get the spectacle or result we had anticipated. That said it was gripping entertainment from kick-off to the final whistle with Wayne Barnes again demonstrating why he is now the top match official.
That the better prepared team, in terms of delivering to order on the day, deservedly took the spoils is beyond debate but Leinster are in a good place irrespective of the disappointment felt by one and all.
Save adding that fifth star under his watch, Mick Dawson’s legacy could scarcely be any more substantial. His successor will be the next massive move of consequence for the province here that continues to lead the way.