We had another full round of Covid testing at La Rochelle Monday. Disruptive of course, but necessary.
What happened to Toulon in the Champions Cup was a stark reminder to all of the fragility of where we are at and the brutal sporting consequences of a positive case of the virus.
The club president and CEO brought us together to remind us of that fact. Toulon’s exit from Europe was beyond callous in one sense but understandable in the context of a zero-tolerance policy in the broader context.
We exist in a bubble, literally and metaphorically. We emerge into the daylight every weekend, relieved to be doing so, but Monday’s testing is a sharp reminder that the situation remains precarious. I’m lucky in that I retain a good capacity to zone into what’s important, to stay in that moment. We used Monday to get a good look at Sale’s dismantling of the Scarlets. They are a dangerous crew, with AJ McGinty on fire, and his colleagues as ruthless as he was efficient. We have some good players too, mind.
It was interesting to see the reaction to our victory at Gloucester, which was a little excessive. A dry ball and a good pitch can make us all hum, or maybe it was the fact that Top 14 rugby isn’t widely available to view in Britain or at home. This is no newsflash, but the standard in the Top 14 this season is very hot. We are getting there, but there is a lot more to come. The ceiling is a bit off yet.
The stats would support the sense that we didn’t actually offload as much as some think against Gloucester but TV interviews and snazzy acronyms adds a bit of stardust. Good passing is something the La Rochelle squad works on ad nauseum anyway. Their coach drives them mad with the most elementary passing work known to man. I know it cracks them up, this five-metre passing drill up and down the field looking for speed in the pass, not in the legs.
So, a la Crusaders, we draw vertical red lines across the pitch at five metre intervals and encourage them to run straight and hard. And in the video room, the players will try to convince that they did run that straight line. Until we factor in the red-line review and laugh with them that, of course, the red paint must be running on the pitch.
If a fella is drifting, the red line gives him away.
Maybe some folk are still wondering how once unfashionable La Rochelle are challenging for the Top 14 title, and in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup? Don’t worry, they’re around the town here too, coming up to you thrilled that we are in the last eight. And they’re the Doubting Thomases who actually see us week in week out.
I don’t see being in a European Cup quarter-final as a big deal. It does my head in to see high-fiving in the streets and the notion that we will get there ‘eventually’. I want to win things now, not eventually. Hopefully, we are eliminating that limited ambition bit by bit.
There might also be that bit about ourselves that doesn’t understand how good we can be. Tawera Kerr-Barlow, the scrum-half, gets a hard time on occasions, but I see a great player with a great attitude, and a fine human being.
Before Darren Sweetnam arrived from Munster last week, Rhys Marshall contacted Kerr-Barlow to explain how quiet and shy the Cork man could be. Before he’d even signed, Kerr-Barlow was onto Darren setting him at ease and establishing recognition. That’s a nice gesture.
Our Fijian centre Levani Botia is consistently good, and a brilliant, brilliant player. And possibly the scariest thing I’ve seen running towards me. In all my experiences as player or coach, there is no-one capable of doing more damage to one’s wellbeing if you fail to get out of the way. I’m not joking. If I’m reffing in training, you just have to scan the pitch at all times to establish where he is. He has hardness that can do unbelievable damage.
Dillyn Leyds is another quality person and operator, as lean as they come but possessed of a wonderful gliding ability. There’s an awful lot of other good ones to be working with at La Rochelle, and getting them humming…well that’s my job isn’t it?
I know I can get my point across. That’s not being presumptive because I’ve seen the other side too, that shattering moment as a coach when you feel helpless and worthless. You’ve no idea how painful parts of this process have been over the last eight years.
With the conditions we had at Kingsholm, we were able to pass accurately and play at speed. But this weekend at home to Sale may require something different, requiring players to have a few different game plans within the plan. Which requires good decision-making: what is a good offload, when is it stacked in your favour?
The week began with Covid testing, but its primary reference point is last Friday’s performance, and the fundamental question: can we back it up?
Playing last Friday allowed us all to sit down and savour Munster and Toulouse from Thomond Park.
This may be against the grain, but I found Munster’s a very acceptable performance. Our old Munster crew had days like that too. What real Munster supporters struggle with is what happened the previous week against Leinster.
Against the pacesetters in the Top 14, they went down swinging this time. We went down swinging plenty of times in the past.
The lingering disappointment is in the fact that when Munster actually did play ball, they made Toulouse look like they had 10 players on the pitch. I couldn’t believe the space Munster were finding against them and you don’t see that happening often to Toulouse in the Top 14. Keith Earls walked in unimpeded for two tries, we saw a totally different dimension to Damien de Allende with ball in hand.
The week before, after the PRO14 final, people were genuinely questioning their rugby acumen. Scoring six points is not something you should be countenancing.
But ultimately, they conceded 40 points at home (no crowd, admittedly), and are out of Europe again. It’s a decade and counting since they won a trophy. At this stage, that’s where they are. And in the same broad realm, you have to conclude that the return from a number of big players isn’t good enough. There’s a disconnect somewhere.
Losing the big ones has become the norm. Munster has lost that aura and teams can put the squeeze on them.
In all the comparisons with Leinster, perhaps that’s the starkest. In tight games, you back Leinster because they know how to get over the line.
I thought when Lyon went 14-0 up against Exeter, we were looking at a sixth Top 14 side in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. But within that game, Exeter rediscovered the combos and the zest that will prove very problematic for Leinster at Sandy Park on Saturday.
It is set up to be the game of the weekend, two of the best sides in Europe with no tomorrow. The manner in which Rob Baxter’s players ultimately destroyed Lyon 47-25 was scary efficient.
The best that one can say from a La Rochelle perspective is that by Saturday evening, one of the two primary obstacles to Champions Cup success is out of the road.
Our goal tomorrow against Sale is stay alive, because Leinster or Exeter are dead.