The surface wounds of a rotten afternoon have long since healed, but the booming bass of French celebrations still resounds in the dark corners. Leinster heads. 12 months ago in Marseille, the Dublin club was minutes to one-fifth. Champions Cup crown, but strength La Rochelle finally said. Vengeance is on their minds as they prepare to re-meet familiar foes on the biggest stage of European rugby this weekend.
Leinster scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park said, “When you’re working with a collective group to get somewhere and you’re down at the last hurdle, especially when it’s like that, a few minutes after the end of the game.” This week.
“One of the things that’s always been talked about with big teams over the years is the way they use defeats and that’s what encourages you for next year. You live for the moments when you raise the trophy and you enjoy those moments with your brothers in the locker room. But the gloomy feelings that come after a defeat are with you.”
These two will be back at war with the big Eurodance coming to Irish shores this year. Perhaps it seems a little unsettling that Leinster will complete their knockout campaign in Europe without having to leave home, but the place was set long ago – and Dubliners may well emphasize that La Rochelle was the one who enjoyed the partisan audiences last year.
This must have been a strange week for a side not used to losing. After piping a largely second-place side by Munster in last weekend’s United Rugby Championship semi-finals, there is not only last year’s demons but local disappointment as well.
The grin Leinster would least want to see right now would be Ronan O’Gara, so the great Munster in the Irish capital is hoping his gang of Atlantic coast pirates can defend their title. The former half did an outstanding job at La Rochelle, making the most of a roster of misfits with a game based on power and keeping the ball alive.
Their Munster red-wearing successors may have tripped Leinster last week, but O’Gara knows his team will not face a full-blown opponent: “Obviously Leinster will be disappointed by this, but their focus was on winning in Europe and in Europe. they made their plans.
“Last weekend, there were 12 Leinster internationals in the stands for the match against Munster. Munster won, but not against Leinster’s strongest side. It will be a completely different team.
“We are waiting for the best version of Leinster and their best version is a challenge. We know how hard it will be, but we want to test ourselves against the best.”
O’Gara’s side tends to develop in an unexpected way, but what may decide the encounter will be his skills to disrupt Leinster’s more structured prose. La Rochelle brutalized and annoyed Saracens during the breakdown He reached such a level in the quarter-finals that he never got used to the England club games. On the hard-headed side, megafauna led by twin giants Uini Atonio and Will Skelton can create the carcass that Levani Botia and her friends are on. feed very eagerly.
But when the wheels start to turn, few can slow down Leinster’s delicate teak. This will be Stuart Lancaster’s last game as Leinster head coach before heading to Paris and Racing 92 – the work the former England coach has done to build a parallel champion side to Leo Cullen deserves a winning farewell.
While there is much to be shared in the twisted Irish green and Leinster blue spirals, the way the national side eliminated France will be immediately remembered. It may not be Johnny Sexton, the cotton-wool until his important fall international job, but Ross Byrne has perhaps had his best season halfway through and will have a fully loaded forward phalanx at his disposal. While most of the crew had a special Dublin day this yearsomeone else has every chance.
“There’s a great atmosphere in the group, people are excited for Saturday,” said winger Josh van der Flier. “A lot of work has gone into building a team that’s good enough to make it to the finals and I hope we can perform as big as we can. It will be incredibly special to play the final in Dublin and see our whole family there.”
Glasgow and Toulon will be decisive in Challenge Cup
Friday night hors d’oeuvres for the European rugby finals weekend pits Glasgow and Toulon against each other. This Challeng’s Cup it can sometimes feel like the weird and unpopular little sister of the prestigious primary prize, but it still has a chance to make a fun finale.
Toulon may no longer be the IT club of European rugby, but they still have a handful of Galacticos on their roster and few can envy Sergio Parisse’s one final trophy lift. The chances of making an international swan song with Italy are slim now.
But the much-underestimated Franco Smith has once again built a multi-talented team at Glasgow, with a largely Scottish back line highlighted by a pair of Argentines at Domingo Miotti and a pair of Argentines at Sebastian Cancelliere, who have been prominent all year. Also noteworthy is a bulky bench with Richie Gray and Rory Darge among the six forwards ready to provide a strong finish if needed.