There won’t be any more determined man in Europe than Ronan O’Gara this weekend as he tries to bring the Heineken Champions Cup home to La Rochelle. As if the sight of a Leinster jersey wasn’t enough to fire him up, Johnny Sexton will be leading the charge for the four time champions. Old rivalries die hard and I’d love to listen in to Rog’s team talk before the game. I played with and against both of Rog and Johnny and they are like two peas in a pod. Both are incredibly confident, it’s their way or the highway, they are great tacticians and they both have great composure. Of course, one of them will be on the sidelines and one on the pitch, although I’ll bet Rog kicks every ball and catches every pass over the 80 minutes.
No task was ever too great for Rog to take on as a player, but I reckon he’s got his hands full as the La Rochelle head coach in trying to find a way to stop Leinster from winning a fifth title. They have become the team to beat in the tournament, especially after the way they tore Toulouse apart in the semi-final. They play at such a pace, have great ball retention and go through so many phases that teams simply run out of numbers in defence trying to stop them. Leinster are a well-oiled machine and are almost robotic in their approach. They are capable of grinding down teams up front and then have the speed and ability behind to maintain the continuity in their game.
La Rochelle have some huge men up front that they used to great effect when they beat Leinster in the semi-final last year. That moment is still etched in the minds of the coaches on both sides, with Leo Cullen moving to find a way to avoid his side getting similarly pulverised in the collisions as last year.
Uinio Atonio and Will Skelton pack around 45 stones between them and made a mess of the Leinster breakdown 12 months ago. With ruck speeds of 1.3 seconds in the quarter and semi-finals, Leinster have found a way to divert attention from that area. If the big men from La Rochelle chase every ruck, they won’t last more than 20 minutes.
They have to pick their moments and ensure they become part of a defensive system that is aggressive and overloaded. Target Sexton, as every team tries to do, and close things down around him. It is going to be a tough ask for La Rochelle, but I went to Dublin with the Ospreys twice to win PRO12 finals at the RDS against all the odds, so anything is possible!
It’s a match-up that brings up the old Munster-Leinster rivalry. Unfortunately Munster won’t be there as a team but Rog is representing and then there’s the whole Johnny Sexton-Rog rivalry they patched up in later years but it’s certainly interesting.
These are two incredible teams going at it and I’m really looking forward to it. I do see Leinster winning. They’re operating at a level that no other club team, perhaps in the world, can compete with but it should be a great game all the same.
Leinster are playing irresistible rugby. It’s seamless what they’re doing, their transitions between defence and attack, how quick their ball is. Gibson-Park is a brilliant player but I’m sure he’s sitting back in some games and counting his blessings he’s been provided with this ball in under a second sometimes. Their speed of ruck is amazing and it’s very hard to defend a team that has that many options and then coupled in with the talent and calibre of player they have to actually execute those skills. It’s a potent mix they have.
La Rochelle will go in as underdogs and Rog will probably be looking at trying to bludgeon Leinster up front. There are the question marks about Leinster’s second row, I don’t think they’re founded to be honest but they’re there so perhaps Will Skelton on from the start can cause a bit of carnage and they do have incredible players across the park. They’re obviously very well coached, they’ve got to the final two years in a row and the Top 14 final last year so they’re going places and with the players they have they could cause an upset. I don’t see it happening but I wouldn’t be absolutely shocked if they did.
But I’m going for Leinster. As a former Munster player and supporter now it’s hard but there are times when you have to stand back and realise they’re an amazing outfit at the minute and something to aspire to. If they are to win you’d hope it can motivate Munster. I hope they do. They’re very impressive to watch.
I suppose, like any prop, the first thing I do is look at the front row when assessing a team. And the thing that jumps out about this one is that Tadhg Furlong is available for Leinster. That’s a massive boost. I think most people expected he would be fine but he’s probably the best tighthead in the world at the moment so having him fit and raring to go is massive.
La Rochelle will fancy taking Leinster on up front, so you need to have your best guys out there. And when you consider Andrew Porter on the other side of the scrum, that gives Leinster an edge. I know La Rochelle have a great front row and pack as well but Furlong and Porter are two huge figures to build your scrum around.
I think the way Porter has been able to adjust between loosehead and tighthead is not just testimony to the player himself but also to the coaches and the whole set-up in Leinster. You never know what’s going to happen in a game, who’s going to get injured, so having that versatility in the front row is a big advantage.
I fancy Leinster to win, they have more big-game experience and are strong in every position. They have a huge squad and are able to slot lads in and out without ever weakening the side. La Rochelle have made huge progress. I remember them being in ProD2 around the time I went over to play for Carcassonne and I’ve no doubt Ronan O’Gara and Donnacha Ryan will have them fired-up for this one, especially losing the final and the Top 14 final last year. But you’d just have to fancy Leinster, they look that bit stronger and Furlong is just the man to lead them into the war.