Leinster end La Rochelle’s three-in-a-row hopes in stunning fashion

Leo Cullen’s side book semi-final date at Croke Park against Northampton after victory over defending champions

Champions Cup quarter-final: Leinster 40 La Rochelle 13

Revenge is a dish best served up in a feverish Aviva. There’s no doubt that all the travel took its toll on Ronan O’Gara’s wilting back-to-back champions but that was in large part because of Leinster’s pool win in La Rochelle, and the Champions Cup holders were ruthlessly dethroned by a vastly superior all-round force in blue.

Leinster emphatically earned a “home” semi-final at Croke Park in three weeks’ time against Northampton, a repeat of the 2011 final against the Saints on Saturday, May 4th.

In truth only the memory of La Rochelle’s heroics here in last May’s final provided any doubt, but with the arrival of Jacques Nienaber and the emergence of Joe McCarthy, this Leinster have a new steel about them.

So commanding were they that Leinster could even afford to take the colossal Caelan Doris off with almost 10 minutes remaining.

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Now 14 weeks into Nienaber’s time at the province, the line speed, confrontational double tackling, counter-rucking, counter-driving at maul time along with the sheer zeal and energy they brought to the defensive work was palpable. The sea of blue bought into it too.

Meantime their attack hasn’t gone away, and the five tries to one victory margin left no room for argument. Along with a good few others, Ross Byrne banished a few demons from last May by pulling the strings expertly and landing six from seven for a 15-point haul in a capricious wind.

All their big guns turned up and fronted up, not least the immense Dan Sheehan, McCarthy, Doris, Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe, who created one try and scored amid a host of big involvements, while Will Connors again justified his selection. The sheer tempo and the variety of their attack, whether direct or seeking space, constantly stressed La Rochelle. Ciarán Frawley’s display made light the loss of Hugo Keenan and the bench configuration was also vindicated.

Despite the detrimental effect which the swirling, blustery wind – which seemed to favour Leinster in the first half – it was still another captivating contest between two of European rugby’s current superpowers.

The wind affected some of Leinster’s early passing and strike plays but the Byrne, judging the wind perfectly, landed the first of three brilliantly struck first-half penalties from a triangle of about 46 metres out.

Leinster, counter-rucking from the off, drew some early lines in the sand with their aggressive line speed and work in the tackle, which the capacity crowd bought into, and gradually they began to find some rhythm in attack, with Sheehan, McCarthy and Henshaw punching over the gainline.

They looked to stretch the La Rochelle defensive line when possible, as when some short passing and congested running lines drew in the French team’s defence before Jamie Osborne crosskicked toward Lowe.

He reclaimed loose ball and Leinster cranked up the pressure, Jordan Larmour doing well to keep the ball alive on the right edge, while Ryan Baird and Sheehan carried hard, before Doris pulled the ball back and Byrne’s quick transfer sent Lowe clear for the try. He converted too.

Leinster played most of the rugby in that first half and added a brilliantly inventive and quick-witted try when Lowe countered and linked with Frawley. When Gibson-Park went blind, as he and Leinster do so effectively, McCarthy carried and offloaded inside with his left paw to Lowe, who in turn offloaded to Gibson-Park on the loop in the narrowest of touchline corridors to score; video replays confirming there was no forward pass.

Again Byrne landed a fine conversion from the touchline but La Rochelle had stayed in touch thanks to a couple of penalties against Doris, for going off his feet and not releasing, by the fastidious Karl Dickson from Antoine Hastoy restarts. Each time La Rochelle landed three pointers.

Then, Dickson pinged Leinster four times in succession, and the La Rochelle juggernaut rumbled over at the third time for loosehead Louis Penverne to score in the fourth minute of first-half time added on. Hastoy’s conversion made it 23-13 and at this point, it felt like an uncomfortably familiar script.

However, Leinster stormed out of the blocks upon the resumption; Doris leading the charge and by example with a sequence of hard carries, as Sheehan, Osborne et al joined in, before the subterfuge. From good ball off another good carry by Doris, Byrne pulled the trigger and Tadhg Furlong pulled the ball back deftly for edge-off-the-fingers hands by Henshaw and Larmour in front of flying defenders enabled Lowe to hit Baird. The athletic flanker ploughed through Hastoy – he can only be hidden so much – for the try and Byrne again converted.

This followed lengthy treatment for Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who seemed to catch Larmour’s knee on his head, and he was taken off on a motorised stretcher to be replaced Teddy Iribaren. Their only other back replacement, Ihaia West, had replaced Dillyn Leyds, who’d been troubled by an apparent neck issue late in the first half.

Now with the daylight of a 30-13 lead, and the Boys in Blue ringing around the stadium, there was no turning back for Leinster as, fuelled by the arrival of Josh van der Flier and co, they ruthlessly set about the tiring Les Maritimes.

The more La Rochelle tried to play catch-up, the more Leinster revelled in their newfound defensive energy. Frawley shot up to tackle Thomas on the edge and after Baird tackled Jack Nowell, Gibson-Park won the penalty. Van der Flier also brought fresh legs to the attack and appeared on Byrne’s shoulder to take a lovely delayed pass.

Although eventually brought down inches out, Byrne used an advantage play for Lowe to hit Sheehan on the edge. Both passes went to ground. It wasn’t Leinster’s prettiest try. But it was an easy run-in by this stage and joyously celebrated.

Byrne’s conversion hit the post, about his only blemish before Gibson-Park impishly swept and countered from a dangerous chip into space by Thomas. What’s more, after Larmour reclaimed a Gibson-Park box kick, Henshaw punted diagonally into space, Lowe eating up the ground to win the ball and finish strongly.

After a blast of Molly Molone, Leinster’s Bomb Squad diffused à La Rochelle catch-and-drive; big young Joe emerging triumphantly with the ball and the crowd roaring both the turnover and the ensuing peacocking.

After Van der Flier scampered clear when gathering a slight overthrow, Osborne punted downfield and Frawley led the charge to collar Thomas.

The final statement of a statement win. Team and crowd alike have bought into this New Leinster.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 8 mins: Byrne pen, 3-0; 17: Lowe try, Byrne con, 10-0; 20: Hastoy pen, 10-3; 23: Byrne pen, 13-3; 29: Hastoy pen, 13-6; 32: Byrne pen, 16-6; 38: Gibson-Park try, Byrne con, 23-6; 40 (+4): Penverne try, Hastoy con, 23-13; (half-time 23-13); 43: Baird try, Byrne con, 30-13; 56: Sheehan try, 35-13; 61: Lowe try, 40-13.

LEINSTER: Ciarán Frawley; Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Jamie Osborne, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Joe McCarthy, Jason Jenkins; Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Caelan Doris (capt).

Replacements: Josh van der Flier for Connors (49 mins); Ross Molony for Jenkins (51), Rónan Kelleher for Sheehan, Michael Milne for Porter, Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong (all 58); H Byrne for R Byrne (63); Jack Conan for Doris (72); Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (73).

LA ROCHELLE: Dillyn Leyds; Jack Nowell, UJ Seuteni, Jonathan Danty, Teddy Thomas; Antoine Hastoy, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Louis Penverne, Tolu Latu, Uini Atonio, Ultan Dillane, Will Skelton, Judicael Cancoriet, Levani Botia, Grégory Alldritt (capt).

Replacements: Ihaia West for Leyds (h-t); Teddy Iribaren for Kerr-Barlow (45 mins); Quentin Lespiaucq for Latu, Alexandre Kaddouri for Penverne, Joel Sclavi for Atonio (all 53); Paul Boudehent for Cancoriet, Yoan Tanga for Botia (both 63), Thomas Lavault for Skelton (66).

Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU).

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