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La Rochelle have learned how to press all of Leinster’s buttons

La Rochelle’s dominance over Leinster has its roots in the troubled relationship between Munster and Leinster

There is always that one team that gets under your skin like no other. It is like they instinctively know how to press all your buttons.

For Leinster, La Rochelle have become that team. This has not happened by accident and despite them being a French team, the entire situation has been manufactured in Ireland.

La Rochelle’s dominance over Leinster has its roots in the troubled relationship between Munster and Leinster. Two teams that love to loathe each other. As only brothers can, they have enjoyed beating seven shades of sh**e out of each other for decades.

When one former Leinster great told me how much he hated Munster, I told him that hate was an exceptionally strong word that should only be used in extreme circumstances.


He paused for a moment to contemplate my words, then confirmed, “Hate ... yes that’s the right word. I have always hated them”. While some of that was obviously said in jest, the underlying tone tells us about the reality of a true intergenerational feud.

Part of Ronan O’Gara’s coaching brilliance in winning two Champions Cup Finals is that he has taken his deep understanding of this bitter rivalry between his home province and Leinster and somehow injected it into the hearts and minds of his highly talented French, Australian, New Zealand, Fijian and South African players.

O’Gara’s aim was for La Rochelle to be the best team in Europe. To achieve this goal they had to overcome Leinster. So he did it the only way he knew how. He brought his Munster mindset to France, enabling Les Maritimes, to emulate Munster’s ability to press every one of Leinster’s buttons.

La Rochelle chose Cork as their base for this week’s camp for many reasons. A prominent one is that in Cork they can tap into the anti-Leinster sentiment and because of O’Gara’s folk hero status, and despite being French, they are the hometown favourites.

A situation beautifully stage-managed by O’Gara.

Before O’Gara began coaching at La Rochelle, most Munster supporters would have needed an old school atlas to find the place on the map. Today, rumour has it, that Ryanair is establishing a new direct flight between Cork and La Rochelle named “La Route de Rog”.

All of this follows on from last year’s pantomime where Grégory Alldritt, the La Rochelle skipper, claimed James Ryan, the Leinster captain and a great person, supposedly disrespected him by not looking him in the eye at the coin toss.

Then two of Leinster’s all time greats, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien, were allegedly moonlighting as bodyguards outside the referee’s change rooms, supposedly to stop Rog from having an influential word with the match officials at half-time.

Seriously, you could not make this stuff up.

O’Gara’s belief his side were viewed as a “little team“ ahead of last year’s final could well have had its origins in thousands of Cork rugby pregame speeches, where every well-balanced player has a chip on both shoulders.

The theme continued this week with a stream of social media posts from Les Rochelais. My highlight was the playing of The Fields of Athenry on the La Rochelle team bus. I am sure that some cultural explanation was required as to why stealing Trevelyan’s corn earned Michael an all-expenses-paid, one-way cruise to Sydney.

All of this has been broadcast across Ireland for one very powerful reason. To get up Leinster’s noses. And I would suggest to you that it has worked a treat. It has certainly got up mine.

In recent years Les Maritimes have forced Leinster to munch so much humble gateaux that there is no doubt that they have the psychological edge over the men in blue. All of this week’s highly entertaining antics in Cork were aimed at cranking that up big time. While La Rochelle must be carrying some residual fatigue from their round trip to South Africa last week, they are a great team and a three-peat Championship victory remains real.

Yet from Leinster this week all the rugby world heard was crickets.

It is not in Leo Cullen’s makeup to trash-talk his opponent. However, the saying “beware the fury of a patient man” should be heeded. Do not be fooled by Cullen’s quiet exterior. The man is as big a competitor as I have ever witnessed. He is also a realist. The two Champions Cup final defeats have forced Leinster into a situation where words are useless.

Cullen understands that the only way they can exorcise their demons of defeat is to win.

Another social media post from within the La Rochelle camp contained a photo of a group of players holding a poster of Ronan’s face surrounded by the words “L’opportunite c’est F**king enorme.” Within the Leinster community, there is a deep feeling of resentment that the La Rochelle campaign has crossed a line.

As a player and coach Leo has been involved in many great, against the odds victories over Munster and several other excellent teams. While it is part of Leinster’s culture to not publicly talk about their passion, unlike Munster and La Rochelle, it is a very foolish team that deceives themselves into believing that their passion is superior to Leinster’s. A trap that many Munster teams of the past have fallen into.

So while La Rochelle may have won the week, they are yet to win the day.

Then again, Caelan Doris may refuse to gaze adoringly into Alldritt’s orbs, so O’Gara can say “I know we’ve beaten them in the last two finals, but these Leinster Langers still don’t respect us!”

While in the stands hordes of Corkonians will stand and wave La Rochelle flags, having arrived in Dublin via a 20-kilometre-long convoy following O’Gara on the team bus, singing Zombie in French all the way.

While we often laugh at the antics of our cousins across the Atlantic and say “It could only happen in America”, I can assure you that what continues to unfold this week falls into the joyously singular category of: “It could only happen in Ireland.”