Rugby-Leinster look equipped to overcome power-packed La Rochelle

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - European Champions Cup Final - La Rochelle v Toulouse - Twickenham Stadium, London, Britain - May 22, 2021 La Rochelle players look dejected as they walk off the pitch after the match Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

(Reuters) - Leinster go into Saturday's Champions Cup final on the back of a hugely impressive European campaign but they know that to win a record-equalling fifth title they will have to withstand, then find a way around, the extraordinary power of La Rochelle.

Leinster, not far off the Irish national team but in blue instead of green, are certainly no lightweights and showed in their knockout wins over Toulouse and, particularly, Leicester that they can deal with immense physicality.

Their all-round game, boasting the 'cohesion' that was the buzzword of this year's Six Nations, functioned almost perfectly and their ability to change gear and switch defence into attack from all points in an instant makes them one of the great club sides of any era.

Victory in Marseille on Saturday would draw them level with Toulouse on five European Cups but the last of their four triumphs came in 2018 and they have suffered some heartbreak since.

Defeat in the 2019 final by a superb Saracens side was hardly an upset but losing to La Rochelle in last year's semi-finals took some swallowing.

The French side just piled on too much power too consistently and eventually ground Leinster down - though they could not repeat the feat in the final where they lost 22-17 to Toulouse without ever really threatening another upset.

Leinster can point to the fact that key halfback pairing Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park missed that semi, which was also an away game, and they will undoubtedly have spent a long time poring over the tape of the match and cooking up strategies to ensure a different outcome.

"When you lose a game of that magnitude you want to learn all the lessons you possibly can and be better next time," said coach Leo Cullen, the only man to have won the European Cup as player and coach.

"It's a game that haunts many of us, for sure, and you want to be better off on the back of those haunting experiences."


Hoping to become the second player/coach champion is the French side's Ronan O'Gara, twice a winner at flyhalf for Munster but who has quickly forged a reputation as a creative coach who laughs suggestions La Rochelle are one-dimensional.

He also knows Leinster probably better than any coach in Europe and, while he acknowledged their victory over Toulouse as a "great performance", he was quick to mention the benefit of their playing the game in Dublin.

"It is up to us to recreate similar conditions in Marseille to stress them out and put them under pressure," O'Gara said of Saturday's clash at the Stade Velodrome.

"We will have to impose our game on them and after that it will be important to occupy and play in their zone because when they get within 22 metres, they're a tough team to stop."

La Rochelle are boosted by the surprise return of giant Australian lock Will Skelton, who was immense in last year's semi-final, but it is Gregory Alldritt, who has been short-listed for the European Player of the Year award, who has been their driving force to a second successive final.

The France Number eight leads this season’s Champions Cup statistics in carries (113), metres (731) and offloads (15) and was man of the match by a distance in the semi-final win over Racing 92.

Marseille will also host the all-French Challenge Cup final on Friday, when Lyon take on Toulon, who will be hoping for a change of fortune having lost all three of their previous appearances in the final of the competition.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris)

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