THE STAKES ARE generally higher when Leinster and La Rochelle go head-to-head but the fact their latest Champions Cup meeting is a pool stage clash won’t dilute the sense of excitement ahead of Sunday’s game in France.
The two sides first came up against each other in the semi-final stages of the 2021 tournament, with Leinster losing 32-23 away to French rugby’s coming force. Since then Ronan O’Gara’s men have added two Champions Cup final wins against the province – Arthur Rètiere’s last-gasp try sealing a dramatic victory in Marseille in 2022 before La Rochelle overturned a 17-point deficit to spoil the party in Dublin last May.
This weekend the two teams face off in the most eagerly anticipated fixture of the opening weekend of Champions Cup action and while the outcome won’t make or break Leinster’s European ambitions for the season, finally getting one over their French foes would surely prove a significant psychological boost for Leo Cullen’s men.
“Obviously both teams know each other pretty well at this point in time, so we’re hugely excited by the challenge,” said Cullen, speaking after Leinster’s two-point win over Connacht on Saturday.
Hugely excited to go over there because it’s a great ground. When we played there during Covid (2021), we came off the bus and there was about 5,000 people outside to greet us, or La Rochelle mainly.
“We went into the stadium and there was nobody there. It’s going to be a great French ground, away. The record they have there, in terms of attendance at the ground. It’s an unbelievably well supported team and club.
“It’s a great challenge going to France, European competition, that’s what’s you play the game for. In many respects, it’s as good as it gets. They’re a team that are unbelievably well supported and heavily backed on and off the field and it’s going to be a brilliant challenge for us and that’s why we’re involved in the game, to take these challenges on.”
Leinster warmed up for the trip with another mixed display against Connacht. Having made 14 changes from the team that beat Munster in Dublin a week previously, the visitors were inaccurate and at times wasteful in Galway. Still, they found enough to cross for four tries, with Ciarán Frawley’s last minute score breaking Connacht hearts.
Cullen will expect a more cohesive display when he names a more formidable selection for the trip to France, where he could face a big decision at out-half.
Ross Byrne remains a major doubt after injuring his arm against Munster. Frawley impressed at 10 after replacing the Ireland international against Graham Rowntree’s side but was moved to fullback for the Connacht game, with Harry Byrne handed the reins at out-half. Sam Prendergast has also made an impact across his four URC appearances this season.
With Johnny Sexton now retired, every weekend feels like an audition for the 10 shirt at Leinster and there was some surprise to see Frawley moved to fullback against Connacht given his display against Munster. The 25-year-old again outlined his desire to play more minutes at 10 in an interview with RTÉ ahead of the Connacht game.
“I thought Harry managed the game pretty well and Ciarán gets over for his try at 15, looked dangerous a few chances he did get,” Cullen continued.
“They give us great options, the two of them. Yeah, it was great for Ciarán, what, seven, eight minutes into the game, he’s run the show at 10 but there’s options for us there.”
With games against Sale, Munster and Ulster all in the diary over the Christmas period, Leinster will continue to rotate their options and manage their resources.
This time of year, there has to be a little bit of, I don’t necessarily like the word ‘experimentation’ but it’s looking at certain things that you want to see.
“Like, every week in theory, whether it’s your strongest team or your weakest team it’s an experiment of sorts, isn’t it?
“But you want to see certain things for the bigger picture, and that’s the great thing about being able to have come away from this period of seven games with six wins.
“We had some guys away during the World Cup, players and from a backroom point of view, Andrew Goodman and Brian Coakley as well, and obviously Jacques (Nienaber) coming in for the first time, he’s in the building less than a week, and it’s going to take a bit of time but it’s a start, so we’re up and running.
“We just try look to improve week on week now, and we’re moving in a direction, so hopefully it’s positive.”
Nienaber’s influence should become more apparent over the coming weeks but Cullen added the South African has already had a positive impact around the squad.
“He’s great, as we talked about previously, character-wise, and yeah, we’d three sessions in the week to have an impact in and the lads are enthused and excited. There’s good energy around the place at the moment.”2023-12-04T06:42:53Z dg43tfdfdgfd