Super Leinster prove impervious to Kryptonite as they hit La Rochelle where it hurts

Jacques Nienaber effect kicks in as Leinster find their defensive edge - and sharpen their attack before a fully engaged 51,700 crowd at the Aviva Stadium

Leinster 40 La Rochelle 13

Almost 12 minutes into this Champions Cup semi-final, Tawera Kerr-Barlow fed big, bad Will Skelton, Leinster’s supposed kryptonite, near halfway. Tadhg Furlong tackled the lumbering Wallaby lock and dumped him on the ground, prompting a loud roar. Two phases later, with Skelton still on the ground, Furlong drove Ultan Dillane back in the tackle and dumped La Rochelle’s Irish lock on the ground too.

If ever there was a line drawn in the sand, it was in those moments, and a fully engaged 51,700 crowd appreciated them. After two trophyless years featuring bitter losses in finals to their new bugbears, the Leinster supporters not only shared their players’ hurt but have bought into the Jacques Nienaber effect as well.

Starting with a lineout just inside the Leinster 10-metre line, La Rochelle were driven back just inside their own half through seven phases, obliging Kerr-Barlow to opt for a box kick.

There had been loud cheers at the preceding La Rochelle lineout when they kicked a penalty up the line and went to their catch-and-drive; the destructive Dan Sheehan muscled through the visiting pack to envelop Tolu Latu and completed the steal.


Even after Kerr-Barlow’s kick, La Rochelle countered dangerously through Dillyn Leyds and Teddy Thomas before Jason Jenkins’ scrambling tackle on the scrumhalf led to the rejuvenated Jordan Larmour winning a turnover penalty.

Initially Leinster misfired a tad with the swirling breeze behind them but soon after their attack began to find its rhythm. James Lowe reclaimed a clever cross kick by Jamie Osborne which found grass before eventually running in his first try when Ross Bryne provided the link from a Caelan Doris pull-back.

But even in the midst of slightly wild and frenzied multi-phase attack, when Skelton went into jackal mode a large chunk of the home supporters delighted in seeing him being unceremoniously dumped on the turf by Joe McCarthy’s clear-out.

“They get excited by guys coming in with big hits, which is good,” agreed Leo Cullen afterwards. “Tadgh Furlong, at the outset, sort of set the tone by picking up Skelton and driving him back, and putting in a big hit shortly after that as well. And he talked well this week, Tadhg. He showed great leadership.

“It is one thing doing it off the field but doing it on the field is the really important piece so that was a big moment I thought early in the game.”

Back in early December, Nienaber had foretold and forecast that his defensive system would take a specific amount of time to bed in. “It took 14 weeks with Munster, it took 14 games with the Boks when we took over in 2018.”

And so it came to pass, in Leinster’s 13th game and the 14th week since the arrival of the dual World Cup-winning coach, that his team delivered their statement defensive performance to date.

“Jacques has added hugely to the group and continued on the work that obviously other coaches have delivered over the last number of seasons,” said Cullen.

“The guys are buying in to what he’s doing. He has a great presence, brings a lot of experience to these big games, obviously a World Cup which is probably the highest pressure in the game, isn’t it? Knockout rugby, quarter-final, semi-final, finals, and thankfully it wasn’t a one-score game today. It’s a bit more relaxing for the last five minutes at the end there which is a credit for all the work that’s gone in.

“It’s been a pleasure to have him on board and he works unbelievably hard in the detail he brings to the team from a defensive point of view and lots of other aspects of the game as well, in the mindset going into the game.

“He’s been a fantastic addition and huge credit to everyone, I suppose, in the club that allows us to bring him here in the first place as well. He’s been a breath of fresh air.”

But the harder defensive edge has not come at the expense of Leinster’s cutting edge. Indeed, this was a satisfying day for all of the coaching ticket, for their set pieces and breakdown work were sharper, and Andrew Goodman’s attack countered La Rochelle’s rush defence cleverly. Leinster varied their point of attack and depth, and found the edge through the hands or the boot, be it the left-footed Osborne or right-footed Robbie Henshaw.

There was no looking back from Lowe’s first try, and four more would follow. After a brilliant McCarthy offload, big, young Joe was everywhere, and Lowe had the first of two try assists with his offload to Jamison Gibson-Park, his former Maori All Blacks’ team-mate and kindred spirit.

Granted, the La Rochelle pack rumbled over with a catch-and-drive in first-half overtime, but the blue die was cast within three minutes of the restart. Big carries by Osborne and the colossal Doris, a deft pull-back by Furlong and fingertip passes by Henshaw and Larmour enabled Lowe to find Ryan Baird on the edge to go through Antoine Hastoy. For the holders, after 10 successive knock-out wins, there was no coming back.

Leinster pummelled them some more and Lowe’s third try assist allowed Sheehan to finish in the corner before Lowe scored his second off Henshaw’s cross-kick as the visitors wilted.

It ended as it began, Leinster defying La Rochelle twice when they went to the corner. McCarthy muscled through their catch-and-drive once more to emerge triumphantly with the ball in his right paw, as if posing with his catch.

La Rochelle didn’t like that. The crowd loved it.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 8 mins: Byrne pen, 3-0; 17: Lowe try, Byrne con, 10-0; 20: Hastoy pen, 10-3; 23: Byrne pen, 13-3; 29: Hastoy pen, 13-6; 32: Byrne pen, 16-6; 38: Gibson-Park try, Byrne con, 23-6; 40 (+4): Penverne try, Hastoy con, 23-13; (half-time 23-13); 43: Baird try, Byrne con, 30-13; 56: Sheehan try, 35-13; 61: Lowe try, 40-13.

LEINSTER: Ciarán Frawley; Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Jamie Osborne, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Joe McCarthy, Jason Jenkins; Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Caelan Doris (capt).

Replacements: Josh van der Flier for Connors (49 mins); Ross Molony for Jenkins (51), Rónan Kelleher for Sheehan, Michael Milne for Porter, Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong (all 58); H Byrne for R Byrne (63); Jack Conan for Doris (72); Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (73).

LA ROCHELLE: Dillyn Leyds; Jack Nowell, UJ Seuteni, Jonathan Danty, Teddy Thomas; Antoine Hastoy, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Louis Penverne, Tolu Latu, Uini Atonio, Ultan Dillane, Will Skelton, Judicael Cancoriet, Levani Botia, Grégory Alldritt (capt).

Replacements: Ihaia West for Leyds (h-t); Teddy Iribaren for Kerr-Barlow (45 mins); Quentin Lespiaucq for Latu, Alexandre Kaddouri for Penverne, Joel Sclavi for Atonio (all 53); Paul Boudehent for Cancoriet, Yoan Tanga for Botia (both 63), Thomas Lavault for Skelton (66).

Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times