That's twice now Leinster have had one hand on the cup and let it slip

In 2019 Leinster held a 10-0 lead coming up to half-time but didn’t score again and lost.
That's twice now Leinster have had one hand on the cup and let it slip

Leinster players walk past as La Rochelle lift the Heineken Champions Cup

Defeat to Saracens in Newcastle three years ago cut Johnny Sexton to the quick. The Leinster out-half referenced that game time and again in recent years and spoke of the deep need to get back to a final and make amends as a team.

What must he be thinking now?

In 2019 Leinster held a 10-0 lead coming up to half-time but didn’t score again and lost. They led 18-10 here in Marseille with 20 minutes to go. They were still a point up when Thomas Lavault went to the sinbin with 15 left and again they lost.

That’s twice now they have one hand on the cup and let it slip. Great teams find ways to win games, they don’t conspire to lose them as Leinster have on their last two appearances in a European final. There is greatness in them but they have still to show it.

“Everyone is pretty devastated in there,” the captain said of the losing dressing-room. “It's a tough way to lose, in the last second, and not even have a chance to come back and try and win the game.

“A couple of slips, and fair play to (Arthur) Retiere for reaching out. It was tough to take. Obviously there were a lot of things that didn't go our way in the last 30 minutes when we were in control of the game. That's the devastating bit.” 

Retiere’s 79th-minute try gave La Rochelle the win their performance deserved. Ronan O’Gara’s side scored three tries and kept their own line intact with a defensive display that utterly neutered the Irish team’s celebrated and expansive attack.

It made for an evening of regrets.

“We'd love to have a crack at it again,” said Leo Cullen, “but you don't get a second chance in finals, do you?” 

Unfortunately not.

Cullen tried to wind the clock forward to next week's URC quarter-final meeting with Glasgow at the RDS but no-one is buying that. Not now. Europe is the barometer Leinster use to measure their season and they have fallen shy of that again.

Sexton said as much on Friday in the pre-match press conference when describing this competition as the “ultimate” and he was honest enough to stand by his words after this most crushing of three-point losses.

“We judge ourselves off both (competitions) but, ultimately, yeah, I can't contradict what I said yesterday. This is the one that everyone wants to win. This is the one we desperately wanted to win and we've come within 60 seconds of it.

“It's a pretty bad dressing-room to be in at the moment. We have to dust ourselves off. It's an incredible tournament, so hard to win, to think of all the good teams are in it and only one gets to walk away with the prize, La Rochelle got to do that today.” 

Like Cullen, he mentioned that point in the second half when they were eight points to the good but there was already an unusual conservatism to the Leinster display in the fact that they had built that score on six of his penalties.

Time and again they turned down the opportunity of seven points by pointing to the sticks for three. It was very un-Leinster, very un-Sexton. Cullen said it was the right course of action. So did Sexton. Sort of.

“We had chances to score, probably, at times, and we could have been a bit more aggressive and gone for tries on a couple of those penalties, because they were repeatedly infringing.

“But we decided to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Hindsight is a great thing, everyone is an expert. We made the decisions and we were in control. A couple of big moments, a couple of big decisions that put them in a position to get into our 22.” 

There was no definitive answer in any of this. Neither he nor his head coach could point to any one thing or moment as the reason behind such a late and narrow loss. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t their day. Nothing else matters much beyond that for now.

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