La Rochelle never panic but their up-and-down form gives Leinster reason to believe

Jacques Nienaber could help concoct a plan for Leinster to finally oust Ronan O’Gara’s team from the Champions Cup when the sides renew their rivalry on Saturday

Rewind to June 17th and Stade Rochelais were 2½ minutes away from completing the greatest day in their 126-year history. They had arrived in the Stade de France for the usual pomp and ceremony around the French Championship final, with President Emmanuel Macron introduced to both sides before kick-off. They’d retained their Champions Cup trophy and, having won 13 of their previous 14 games, looked well set to complete a dream double.

They led Toulouse, their bêtes noires, by 26-22 and the clock had passed 77 minutes. Romain Ntamack had kicked a penalty to the corner into touch-and-goal in the 74th minute. The La Rochelle fans were giddily anticipating the club’s first ever Bouclier de Brennus. The Toulouse supporters were resigned to defeat.

Whereupon Ntamack received ruck ball inside the Toulouse 10m line, saw UJ Seuteni shooting up out of the defensive line and beat him on the outside before dummying Dillyn Leyds on halfway and accelerating past him and Brice Dulin. Raymond Rhule swept across but there was no catching Ntamack.

There’s rarely been a better or more dramatic tie in the storied French championship. After the defeat, a stunned Ronan O’Gara stood on the pitch and stared blankly ahead, as did his players and their supporters.

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What’s followed last May’s heartbreak has been an unexceptional campaign to date, not helped by the demands of the World Cup. At this exact point last season, La Rochelle had won four more matches (17 to 13) and lost four less (eight as against a dozen) in the Top 14 and Champions Cup combined.

Yet James Coughlan, the former Munster number eight who has spent the last decade in French club rugby as a player and then coaching stints with Pau, Aix, Brice and Toulon, does not believe O’Gara’s team are carrying mental baggage from that crushing defeat last June.

“I don’t think so. I think they have moved on from that. I’ve spoken with Donnacha Ryan [the La Rochelle forwards coach] about that and he said: ‘If we play that final another nine times, James, we win the game. It’s just that Ntamack did something special.’

“Maybe there were scars afterwards but they dealt with it. They went away on holidays and I think they just moved on, because the World Cup would have done that for them. I’d be more worried about the French lads who played in the World Cup than I would be about La Rochelle losing that final.”

They have won nine out of 10 in the Top 14 at their Stade Marcel Deflandre fortress this season, and 11 out of 13 in total. Meanwhile, they’ve lost nine out of 10 away in The Top 14. But they’ve won two out of three away in the Champions Cup, as well as their 10 knock-out ties in succession in this competition, which tells us “exactly what it says on the tin”, according to Coughlan.

“Cup rugby isn’t about league form, it’s about coming up with a game plan and ‘Rog’ is very good at coming up with a game plan. He’s done it over and over and over again, in La Rochelle, Marseilles and in Dublin,” adds Coughlan with regard to the semi-final and two final wins over Leinster in the last three seasons.

This was especially true in the Aviva last May, when Leinster roared into a 17-0 lead with three tries inside the first 12 minutes, and led 23-7 just past the half-hour mark, only to be outscored by 20-3 thereafter.

“The major thing in Dublin was that no one panicked. They didn’t go off script, so that means he has a team that is 100 per cent convinced in the game plan that he’s selling. If you’re talking to a group and telling them: ‘Don’t worry if Leinster go ahead of us, they’ll crack, they’ll crack, they’ll crack,’ then clearly they believed him.”

For the last lineout of the game, the 24-year-old replacement lock Thomas Lavault called a throw to the tail by the replacement hooker Quentin Lespiaucq-Brettes before La Rochelle kicked the ball dead to close out the game.

“I told Donnacha it was the ballsiest call I’ve ever seen at a lineout in my life. The margin of error is so high, at such a critical point in the game and they called the right call at the right time to win the game, because it worked. That for me also shows me that the players believe in their coaches.”

There have been just two away wins in 23 matches in the Champions Cup knock-out stages over the last two seasons. Both have been achieved by La Rochelle, and both by a point. Last Saturday, they came from 16-0 down to beat the Stormers in Cape Town, before O’Gara took the squad direct to Cork, which Coughlan describes as a master stroke.

“They’re been a bit of a mixed bag this season but they’re coming good. When they were 16-0 down against the Stormers in Cape Town, again there was no panic. It was very similar to what happened in the final last May. Everyone kept doing what they were doing and they dug it out again.”

“There’s nothing wrong with La Rochelle but there’s been a huge lack of consistency. ‘Rog’ has spoken about it, especially after Lyons,” says Coughlan, in reference to La Rochelle’s 28-17 loss at struggling Lyons in February.

Missing their frontline French contingent, La Rochelle led 14-3 after 15 minutes before falling away badly.

“I can’t be disappointed because I saw how we trained,” O’Gara told the media afterwards. “This week, the players were more focused on real estate prices on the Île de Ré than on the field. It depends on what you want in life. If you want to be rich in apartments or houses, or rich with medals.

“So no, I’m not disappointed or surprised ... We weren’t good at anything. Neither in possession, nor in desire, nor in vision, nor in execution ... It’s a dark day for the club. It’s too easy to say that there are absentees. For me, that doesn’t explain this horrible, almost catastrophic performance.

“With all the respect I have for their club, LOU [Lyons] was dying in front of us at 14-3, and we are not capable of killing this match. It’s serious, but it’s exactly a reflection of what happened in training.

“This is not my vision of how to represent your club on Saturday afternoon. We were not a club that respects its supporters, its family ... It was quite shameful.”

There are other slight malfunctions in the La Rochelle machine. “[Antoine] Hastoy has missed a few kicks that he shouldn’t be missing, and Skelton hasn’t been around much,” adds Coughlan. Skelton has started only nine games for La Rochelle this season, but that includes all five of their Champions Cup games.

Coughlan would be concerned about the Leinster backup front-row, and the need for Andrew Porter to play 70 minutes or more for province and country, and adds: “When [Joel] Sclavi comes on, he always gets a score.” Indeed, despite making 26 of his 38 appearances over the last two seasons as a replacement, the prop struck with a late match-winning, close-range finish to claim his ninth try in that time. This tells us something else too.

“Donnacha has them really well drilled in the scoring zone,” says Coughlan, “and their forwards are massive, apart from anything else.”

Yet aside from overcoming La Rochelle at the Stade Deflandre last December by 16-9, Coughlan believes there is another factor at work that can infuse Leinster with belief, namely: “How Ireland were so convincing in beating France in Marseilles. Does that give a lot of confidence to the Leinster boys?”

Well, given that 10 of the Leinster XV started in that 38-17 win, along with five more of the match-day 23, it should do. Furthermore, Jonathan Danty, Reda Wardi, Uini Atonio, Paul Boudehent and Grégory Alldritt all played that night.

Granted, Alldritt was a noticeable absentee when Leinster won in December, and he has been refreshed by the post-World Cup, two-month break he took. Against that, Rhule, Wardi and influential hooker Pierre Bourgarit are all sidelined.

Another game-changer, as Coughlan sees it, is the emergence of Joe McCarthy. “I thought he was brilliant in the Deflandre last December. I know he got a yellow card, but he got the yellow card for the right reason – not taking a step backwards.”

The former Munster number eight also believes Leinster are more settled at half-back. “Gibson-Park is playing as good as anyone in the world at the moment at 9, apart from our friend in Toulouse.”

“If I was in a coaching group at Leinster I would be looking at how South Africa beat France – not a dissimilar game plan with the same type of players, and you have one of the guys [Jacques Nienaber] who came up with that plan specifically for the big pack of French forwards.

“We saw the high ball with Eben [Etzebeth] on the edge. I think they’ll have one or two of those up their sleeves. They now have a coach [Nienaber] who is renowned for that kind of stuff, to come up with specific plans, and then they’ll have enough rugby to go on and win it then.”

Coughlan has predicted each of the four previous meetings between the two correctly and ventures: “If I was going to call it, I’d say Leinster. I’m not entirely sure why, but how many times have Leinster blown a 17-0 lead like they had in the final? Surely, they’ll have learned from that. Honestly, I could be wrong, but I think they’ll just have enough.”