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Ronan O’Gara’s role as pantomime villain added further fuel to Leinster fire

Routing of La Rochelle proved a huge vindication of Leo Cullen’s selection strategy

There’s no doubt that Ronan O’Gara’s decision to take his La Rochelle squad from Cape Town to Cork at the start of last week was primarily for logistical reasons and, in that sense, well, it made utter sense.

But there’s also no doubt that it seemed to further provoke an already vengeful Leinster, or certainly seemed to irritate Leo Cullen and the blue clad supporters.

O’Gara, a legend of Munster rugby, was understandably afforded a hero’s welcome in his home city and by basing his La Rochelle squad there it served to tap into, and perhaps even accentuate, Munster’s rivalry/antipathy toward Leinster. Uini Atonio noted wryly that they seemed to be more popular in Cork than in Dublin.

Cullen gave vent to his irritation at his Friday press conference with references to a “Cork bandwagon” behind La Rochelle with Donal Lenihan even being name-checked for providing the French club with Cork Con’s Temple Hill as a training base.


Cullen was laughing as he said this, if less so when lamenting that all of Ireland were not supporting Leinster given they were the last provincial team standing in the competition.

He did acknowledge that this is not the way it works and, in truth, it probably hasn’t done so since the innocent 1990s. The rivalry between Leinster and Munster became too intense, especially around the semi-finals of 2006 and 2009.

The latter shoot-out in Croke Park marked a shift in the balance of power. Previously, Leinster supporters looked on enviously as Munster’s golden generation reached their Holy Grail in 2006 after the Red Army invasion of the old Lansdowne Road in that first semi-final clash.

Since the ‘09 semi-final, Leinster have remained a European superpower, earning four stars on their jerseys while hoovering up Pro12/14 titles until Munster recorded an overdue win in the URC semi-final before ending an 11-year trophy drought last season.

Some of the nastiness that developed on the terraces and the stands has, thankfully, abated over recent years. Most rival supporters enjoy a good-natured rivalry in person, whatever about the anonymous contributions on, eh, social media. Such is life.

That said, Leinster fans can be annoyed by Munster supporters (and former players) wearing La Rochelle tops or scarves at the Aviva for last May’s final.

O’Gara, despite also being a legend of Irish rugby, has evidently filled the role of pantomime villain, judging by the audible booing whenever the cameras panned to the La Rochelle coaching box.

But this is also an inevitable product of the rivalry which has developed between Leinster and La Rochelle over four years of annual meetings in the knock-out stages which in turn has stoked the embers between O’Gara and Johnny Sexton.

Which begs the following thought. Suppose the shoe was on the other foot, that Munster had been the dominant Irish force for the last 15 seasons, winning four Champions Cups while Leinster kept coming up short. Furthermore, if in that scenario Sexton was head coach of, say, Racing 92 against Munster in a quarter-final at the Aviva after leading the Parisian club a semi-final and back-to-back final wins over the men in red?

One would imagine that plenty of Leinster fans, if not all, would be supporting Racing. Against that, presumably plenty of fans from rival Top 14 clubs would not be rooting for them. That’s the nature of things. It’s a shame, but local rivalries are usually the fiercest. Rival Premiership supporters don’t cheer for each other’s teams in European football.

Cullen has a tendency to wander off into random thoughts that are not strictly related to the questions and in one of them last Friday he also accepted responsibility for Leinster’s selection in their URC semi-final loss to Munster last season.

No doubt some of the more entitled Leinster fans blame Cullen too for not playing more of the squad’s frontliners that day, although had he done so and one or two had been injured ahead of the Champions Cup final a week later, he’d have copped flak too.

Also, Leinster were within one knock-on of closing out that semi-final against Munster, in which case there wouldn’t even have been a discussion about his selection.

Certainly, Cullen’s selection last week, while clearly influenced by Jacques Nienaber, was entirely vindicated – not least pairing Jason Jenkins with Joe McCarthy in a robust second-row to counter the Will Skelton-Ultan Dillane axis and in the ballast which the 6-2 bench provided.

Granted, one of the main benefits of also recalling the chop-tackling, tree-felling Will Connors (two Champions Cup starts, two wins over La Rochelle) was the huge half-hour this inspired from Josh van der Flier.

Cullen is in his tenth season performing the juggling act that is the role of a Leinster head coach. From the outside, this seems almost impossible, given the quality of players in their 44-man squad, all the more so when nigh on 20 of them are away on World Cup and Six Nations duty for around five months of the season, and with a further 18 players in the academy. Nor are there nearly enough matches to keep 50-plus players all happy.

Overseeing an admittedly smooth machine, Cullen’s knowledge and detailed analysis of the wellbeing of all those players, and more, is exhaustive. He’ll revel in the forthcoming two-week trek to South Africa. He’ll stay on when Andrew Goodman will return with some of the frontliners after the Lions match in Johannesburg. More juggling.

Ego-free, it won’t bother him one jot that most of the credit went to others for what was such a convincing dethroning of the champions.

And while the big guns turned up last Saturday, the 40-13 win over La Rochelle was as much a triumph for the squad and players such as Ciaran Frawley, Jamie Osborne, Ross Byrne, Jason Jenkins and Connors.

Unusually for Leinster, in a free-scoring weekend, theirs was the stand-out defensive performance. Last year’s four ties were the highest scoring – 247 points at 62 per game and 31 tries – in the previous 27 years of quarter-finals. But last weekend’s four games smashed those tallies, with 41 tries scored and 307 points accumulated.

It was a feast of rugby, admittedly in largely perfect conditions, but in light of their latest slew of proposed law changes, it begged one question of World Rugby. If it ain’t broke?