Pressure on Leinster to show they aren’t the new Clermont – Andy Goode
They may be facing the formidable reigning champions but Leinster are heavy favourites everywhere you look and the pressure really is on to prove they aren’t the new bridesmaids of European rugby.
For years it was Clermont who were beaten in a plethora of major knockout games domestically and were perennially competing at the business end of the Champions Cup but lost three finals in the space of five years. It isn’t a mantle Leinster want to take on.
However, if Leinster do find La Rochelle too tough a nut to crack yet again, it will be a Clermont-esque third Champions Cup final defeat in five years and for all the talent and Grand Slam winners in their ranks it feels like they need this to prove there isn’t something amiss psychologically.
Nobody else got a sniff in the URC between 2017 and 2021 as Leinster won four straight titles and they still finish top of the table at the end of every regular season, winning nearly every game, but they have lost their last couple of big knockout games in that competition too.
It was something of a surprise to see them rest almost their entire starting XV in the semi-final defeat to rivals Munster last week, and that does provide them with a ready-made excuse, but the first choice side were stunned by the Bulls in Dublin less than a year ago as well.
A lot of bookies have Leinster at 1/3 to win the title, with La Rochelle at 5/2 and stats provider Oval Insights gives the Irishmen a massive 78% chance of victory in their win predictor, just to ramp up the pressure that little bit more.
Clearly, a massive factor in all this is home advantage, something they’ve enjoyed throughout the knockout stages and might just help drag them over the line, although it can work both ways if the Frenchmen make a fast start.
Last week was just Leinster’s second defeat in their last 31 outings at the Aviva Stadium but finals are different and this showpiece occasion is almost always tight, with two thirds of the previous editions being settled by a margin of seven points or fewer.
The favourites tag and expectation of home fans is not something new for these Leinster players to deal with, far from it, but the recent Champions Cup final and URC semi-final defeats make it a fascinating aspect of this game.
Leinster have to dispel the doubts and impose their game on La Rochelle, something they haven’t managed to do in either of their previous meetings, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Ronan O’Gara will be encouraging his side to ensure those doubts creep in more and more with each passing minute.
It helps having some of the most sizeable players in the sport at your disposal but O’Gara is one of the most tactically astute coaches we’ve seen and his plan to slow Leinster down will be key.
The men in blue have been physically dominated by La Rochelle in the past and they have evolved since those days but it is the speed of ball that is absolutely crucial to them getting on top.
The reigning champions have swatted aside English opposition throughout the knockout stages of this competition and their work at the breakdown has become increasingly impressive.
Levani Botia was phenomenal in the quarter-final against Saracens, winning four turnovers on his own, and he often understandably gets the headlines but he’s the ace in the pack surrounded by other players who enable him to do that and are good over ball themselves.
That will be the major battleground, along with the set piece, but the match-up at fly-half will also be as pivotal as ever. Ross Byrne has really stepped up in Johnny Sexton’s absence of late but Antoine Hastoy has been a joy to watch at times in his first season at La Rochelle.
He may not get too many column inches because of the presence of the likes of Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert across the Channel but his game management, decision-making and kicking game, with flashes of brilliance to go with it, have been outstanding.
Pressure comes in many forms but with home advantage, the favourites tag, the fact they’ve prioritised this quest for a fifth star so much and the nagging doubts of recent defeats in big games, it feels like it is all on Leinster.
Having played in major finals domestically and in Europe, they just cut different. The psychological element obviously plays a much bigger role than it does in other matches and Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s men have to prove they have what it takes in that department.
This is supposed to be Leinster’s time. The behemoths of La Rochelle stand in their way but it’s almost all stacked in their favour and the pressure is on to prove they aren’t nearlymen and deserve the title of kings of Europe once more.
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Superb player and always a joy to watch.Go to comments
Sadly for Dweba his performance on the field was poor.Go to comments