Unless you’re a perpetual optimist or working an a PR department for a rugby administrator, it is hard to argue that it has been a trying season for professional rugby, but the final between Leinster and La Rochelle, showcased the very best of our game, in a fixture for the ages. Toulon completed the French double against Glasgow, winning at a canter but events in Dublin were mesmerising from the second Dan Sheehan crashed over the line after 50 seconds. Eighty minutes of chaos ensued but despite Leinster’s hearts being broken, rugby was very much the winner.
La Rochelle prove their Champions credentials
‘You have data for everything, but you don’t have data for character’ Ronan O’Gara, basking in winning back-to-back Heineken Cups, was erudite and insightful, when discussing quite how his La Rochelle side has come back from the biggest losing deficit in the competition’s history to pip Leinster in a 27-26 thriller that is being dubbed the greatest European Cup final of all time.
How a La Rochelle side, 7-0 down after 50 seconds and 17-0 after 11 minutes, against a Leinster side playing rugby from the Gods is one that will be talked about in decades to come. At the end of the game, players from both sides lay prone on the Dublin turf after a match of breathless intensity and physicality. Leo Cullen’s men, barely able to believe that a season that promised so much had unravelled in the space of eight days, as it had a year ago.
The questions are already being posed as to whether the invincibility shown by Ireland over the last 18 months will be rocked – for Leinster are the Ireland team in all but name, but that is to do La Rochelle a disservice. Their inner resolve to not give up when facing such seemingly insurmountable odds. Will Skelton was a behemoth, an oversized thorn in the side of Leinster once again, and with Gregory Alldritt and Uini Atonio also prominent in the loose, and Jonathan Danty skittling Garry Ringrose, France will now have players who know how to beat the very best Ireland can offer, after losing to them in an epic Six Nations encounter.
For O’Gara, a proud Munsterman, victory must have been all the sweeter. O’Gara has an authenticity that is beguiling. Although he is clearly tactically astute, he doesn’t offer indecipherable coach-speak, he is eminently relatable. He has his flaws, but players will metaphorically run through walls for him. He is adored in the West tip of France, where there would be few dissenters if a statue was built in his honour. For now, O’Gara wants to build a dynasty, to follow the Crusaders, who won six Super Rugby titles in a row, and that will be music to the ears of a side who had never even reached the Heineken Cup until the 2017-18 season. He will never standstill, never pat himself on the back and that is to his credit.
For the tens of thousands of fans, who lit up the port of the charming French city and waited up until the early hours to welcome back their heroes, a message, on an encore du mal à réaliser, juste MERCI (It’s still hard to realise, just THANK YOU). This is a game that will live long in the memory.
Leinster beaten, but unbowed
Here’s a thought no one else appears to have had in the wake of Saturday’s epic final at the Aviva Stadium. Maybe Leinster are mentally spooked by La Rochelle, having lost to them three years on the trot; maybe they are physically weak in comparison to the Will Skeltons of this world. Maybe they will never recover psychologically from the nature of this defeat, a 17-point lead squandered.
Or maybe, the entire rugby world is guilty of over analysing a one-point game and looking at the result more than the entire 80-minutes. Leinster lost by a point in a European final, after losing by three points in last year’s decider.
History gets written by the winners, remember. So, the focus is on Ronan O’Gara’s leadership, his team’s never-say-die spirit, his ability to be undaunted in a hostile environment.
But imagine for a moment if La Rochelle’s three best players were absent for the bulk of the second half, as Leinster’s were. Imagine where they’d be then? Imagine how the result would be framed. Imagine if Ross Byrne’s conversion hadn’t have struck the post but had sneaked in. Six inches. That’s the difference between winning and losing sometimes.
Had he made it, we’d be praising Leinster for the 183 tackles they made, for winning the game by a point, even though they had 42 per cent possession, and 41 per cent territory.
“Tiny margins,” said Garry Ringrose, their centre, afterwards.
“But we struggled just to relieve pressure.”
So does that make them a bad side and La Rochelle an incredible one? Because that’s how the game has been framed in the aftermath. For sure, the French side managed the game better than Leinster; for sure they played with champions’ hearts; for sure they deserved to win.
But would they have done so if their three leading players were injured as Leinster’s were, Johnny Sexton missing the entire game, James Ryan the last sixty minutes of it, Tadhg Furlong the last 35 minutes.
Had one, never mind all three, been fully fit for the entirety of the final then it’s not inconceivable that Leinster would have won, that one of those two missed conversions from Ross Byrne would have been nailed by Sexton, that Furlong’s discipline would have held in the way his replacement didn’t, that Sexton would have organised Leinster to go for a drop goal. He did it in Paris for Ireland in 2018, remember.
Byrne, unforgivably, didn’t put his hand up to try it in Dublin.
So, let’s contextualise Leinster’s loss. They were one point shy against a great team. That doesn’t make them a bad one.
O’Gara – the uncrowned king of Ireland
It is 10 years since Ronan O’Gara retired as a player, 12 years since his beloved Munster won anything. You’d think, at some stage, the overpraised IRFU might have persuaded him to get back into the fold.
Maybe they might have done so after Racing won the 2016 Top 14, where he worked on their backroom staff; perhaps after the first or second of his Super Rugby triumphs in 2018 or 2019 with Crusaders; perhaps after La Rochelle finished runners up in the 2021 Champions Cup, or after they won the 2022 edition.
Now that he has won back-to-back titles, he may as well name his price for the Ireland job once Andy Farrell goes because the man is a genius, an inspirer of players, a leader, a champion.
He’s not a blazer wearing yes man. He won’t be bullied. He may not be on the inside in the way Paul O’Connell is but the bottom line is that O’Gara has done it as a head coach and O’Connell hasn’t. So in the succession race, he has to be the one they turn to. The only question Kevin Potts or David Nucifora, the respective chief executive officer and high performance director of the IRFU, need to ask O’Gara is this: what would you do it for? For this is the most obvious choice sport has had since Nike approached Michael Jordan and asked if he’d like to wear their sneakers. Just do it, Ireland.
Glasgow fail to deliver when it matters most
Glasgow could have served up their greatest performance of the season and still lost Friday’s Challenge Cup final. They could have put on the best showing of the resurgent Franco Smith era and still been undone by Toulon’s class, verve and dynamism. We’ll never know if Glasgow’s top gear would have been enough, whether their finest rugby would have stymied Cheslin Kolbe and Charles Ollivon and the great departing champion, Sergio Parisse. We’ll never know because what the Warriors delivered was so woefully, cataclysmically beneath themselves, a golden opportunity to win Scotland’s first European crown relinquished in meek fashion.
Glasgow were second-best by any metric which matters. Toulon bossed collision after collision. They obliterated the Glasgow breakdown. Smith’s line-out disintegrated, bungled set-pieces leading to two, and very nearly three, Toulon scores. They had none of the attacking incision or penetration that has epitomised their swashbuckling season. After 25 minutes, they were 21-0 down. The game was all but done.
Glasgow seemed spooked in those early throes. Unsettled from the off. If Toulon came thundering out of the blocks, Warriors were quivering on the start line. The French giants brought bristling intensity, a tone-setter for what was to come. It felt like the magnitude of the occasion and the aggression of their opponents caused Glasgow to wilt.
By the time they’d found their sea legs, it was far too late. They didn’t cross the Toulon whitewash until 15 minutes into the new half then promptly conceded a seven-minute double. Most athletes can handle defeat, so long as they’ve put their best stuff on the field and their best wasn’t good enough. That’s why this will sting and gnaw at Glasgow’s players in the months ahead. This was one of the poorest displays of the campaign on the biggest stage of all. They died wondering.
Smith’s team selection has been roundly criticised. He left his best set-piece hooker, Johnny Matthews, and one of the best lineout forwards anywhere, Richie Gray, on the bench. Rory Darge was among the replacements too and Glasgow missed the close-quarter ferocity he brings from the flank. Smith’s squad management has been exceptional throughout the campaign but his plan to stack the bench and blast Toulon with his heavyweight arrivals bore no fruit. Glasgow were a spent force by then.
This team should not be filleted, though. From where they were a year ago, well resourced by underperforming, morale in tatters after a 70-point savaging in the RDS, Smith has made them believe again. Glasgow are playing glorious Glaswegian rugby once more, embarking on long unbeaten runs, bringing knockout fare back to Scotstoun. The new coach ends the campaign firmly in the black, Glasgow’s reputation enhanced alongside his own. Plaudits and adulation have been flung their way for months, but flopping in the final will leave a lingering sour taste.
Jones and Tipuric bow out on their own terms
Most followers would have had a double-take when news of first Justin Tipuric, and then Alun Wyn Jones, were retiring from Test rugby with immediate effect. Two titans of Welsh rugby throwing in the towel and leaving the general public to look for clues as to why they had called it a day, less than four months out from a World Cup.
If you take Alun Wyn Jones’ situation first. He will be turning 38 during the tournament, and whether the ‘mood music’ was that he was an outside-bet for the 33-man squad prompting him to act first and call it a day. With Will Rowlands fit, Adam Beard a shoe-in and Cory Hill back in the mix, coupled with youngsters Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza pushing hard for a place, there were no cast-iron guarantees Jones would selected. For one of the giants of the modern game, someone with a record 170 Test caps, the ignominy of being dropped wasn’t going to be entertained. What Welsh fans are left with is a debt they can almost never repay to a player who gave everything in a Welsh shirt, set standards and often acted as the voice of a nation. His legacy remains in-tact.
As for Tipuric, again there is conjecture. Always a player who was happy for others to take the spotlight, injuries had started to take their toll. He missed a full season after incurring a freak injury for the 2021 Lions squad in their warm-up game at Murrayfield, and while back to his best during the Six Nations campaign, another injury incurred against Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter-final must have frustrated this arch competitor. Again, Tipuric has competition for places was acute. Jac Morgan (23) and Tommy Reffell (24) are a decade younger and at the peak of their powers. It is not an area Wales lack depth, with Thomas Young and Josh McLeod also serious openside operators, but Tipuric will be a big miss. He was a player who could do everything; he was a brilliant back of the lineout jumper, he had the hands of a centre, the kicking skills of a fly-half and had immense workrate in defence. His gifts will be sorely missed, and with 263 caps missing from Wales’ squad, there’s a leadership vacuum.
In 2011, Martyn Williams failed to make the ‘big show’ and in 2015, James Hook and Mike Phillips were dropped after the warm-up games. Rob Evans was the big casualty from 2019. Indeed, time waits for no man so instead, we should just cherish the memories the duo gave fans in a Welsh shirt. They were simply sensational.
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