In what will be a thrilling showdown, masterminds Leo Cullen and Ronan O’Gara are once again set to lock horns in this year's Heineken Champions Cup final. This epic clash brings together the two most formidable forces of European rugby of the last three years, promising an event of high-octane action and nervous drama.
Historically, this fixture has not been kind to Leinster, who has faced the cunning and tactical brilliance of O'Gara's leadership over the past three seasons. This time, however, the stakes are even higher. As Stuart Lancaster prepares to bid adieu to his role as Leinster's senior coach, the team is determined to gain a 5th title, seeking retribution for their past losses and ensuring Lancaster departs with the coveted trophy as a testament to his invaluable contribution to the club.
The underperformance of a 32-23 semi-final loss and the gut-wrenching, last-minute defeat in last year's final 24-21, both on French soil, still lingers in the hearts of the players and fans alike. However, all eyes are now set on the grand showdown in Dublin this Saturday, where victory is the only acceptable outcome.
The burning question remains: What has Leinster learned from their past two losses? And more importantly, will they use this wisdom to cross the finish line victoriously this year? As the excitement builds up for this Saturday, what should we be watching out for? Buckle up, as this promises to be an encounter for the ages!
READ ALSO: Ferris Believes Recent Selections May Leave Leinster Undercooked For Champions Cup Final
Leinster will set its sights on Will Skelton in the La Rochelle lineout defence. Skelton, an adversary from his days at Saracens, has long been a thorn in Leinster's side. However, his team struggle to lift his imposing frame as he becomes a liability at lineout time. This could be a pivotal point of advantage for Leinster in the impending clash!
A high-stakes chess match awaits as O’Gara plots to disrupt Leinster’s momentum, forcing them to resort to a Plan B. This strategy might seem straightforward on paper, but history tells us that many teams have attempted and failed to implement it against the resilient Leinster side. Yet, O’Gara confidently holds the belief that he possesses the tools necessary to execute this game plan, buoyed by his team's six breakdown turnover wins in last year's final.
With the likes of French international Gregory Alldritt and the exceptional Lavani Botia prowling around the ball, Leinster must devise a strategy to circumvent these two masters of ball poaching. La Rochelle's victory in last year's final, scoring 3 tries to none, was largely attributed to their ability to slow the ruck, thereby allowing precious time to reorganise their defensive line.
However, much of this strategy's success will hinge on referee Jaco Peyper's interpretation of the laws. In last year's final, La Rochelle conceded 13 penalties, allowing Leinster to capitalise with seven successful penalty kicks at goal. Consequently, Leinster will need to stay vigilant around Alldritt and Botia on the field, and, more importantly, avoid getting isolated from their support players. This is sure to be the key battleground for both teams in their preparation.
#HeinekenChampionsCup Final week - Is there a better team at winning defence pens than La Rochelle. Botia is incredible at getting on the ball. pic.twitter.com/XLMzgV7hkz
— Brett Igoe (@brett_igoe) May 15, 2023
The kicking battle
A chink in the La Rochelle armour appears to be their backfield defence. Despite having French international Brice Dulin on their side to oversee the backfield, his over-eagerness to join the defence line could present Leinster with golden opportunities. Ulster and Gloucester have both enjoyed success in exploiting this vulnerability and with Ross Byrne's stellar kicking strategy, Leinster could well turn this into a decisive advantage.
💰 On the money from @Billy_12trees for @LouisReesZammit.
A heartbreaking ending but plenty of positives to take away from that performance.
Highlights 👉 https://t.co/yFveE4F7n0
🟡🍒 // #LARvGLO pic.twitter.com/9Cjhn04G7F
— Gloucester Rugby 🍒 (@gloucesterrugby) April 2, 2023
Naturally, for a team coached by Ronan O’Gara, strategic kicking plays a monumental role. Long-range exit kicks and contestable box kicks are among La Rochelle's key kicking tactics. It's imperative for Leinster's backfield to effectively field these kicks, and equally crucial for the frontline defenders to disrupt La Rochelle's chase lines. Moreover, there's an opportunity for Leinster to take advantage of a potentially disjointed chase line two passes out during this transition attack.
Expect O’Gara to find chinks in the Leinster defence as he is sure to go after certain aspects of Leinster’s defence. Last year he looked to go after Gibson Park at the front of the Lineout.
Anticipate La Rochelle employing various tactics to target Gibson-Park, even if their approach differs from previous attempts. Toulouse may have unveiled a chink in Leinster's defensive armour, a few weeks ago, during the semi-final stage with a carefully orchestrated try, achieved by leaving numbers back down the blind side and changing their point of attack quickly.
⚡️ Toulouse strike first!
🔥 Pita Ahki scores the opening try of the semi-final.#HeinekenChampionsCup #LEIvTOUpic.twitter.com/cZsnWaYB49
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) April 29, 2023
Taking a page from others' playbooks
During the last 16 round of this year's Championship, La Rochelle squared off against Gloucester, a team that Leinster had previously put to the sword in the pool stages. Gloucester's strategy revealed that La Rochelle found it difficult to cope with high-tempo play and wide attack plays especially from lineouts. By stretching the defence and getting around La Rochelle's high outside defence press, Gloucester demonstrated a potential strategy for Leinster to exploit. This tactical play could provide a blueprint for Leinster to stretch their attack and expose potential frailty in La Rochelle's defence.
WHAT 👏 A 👏 FINISH 👏
Freddie Clarke, take a bow!
The @gloucesterrugby 4️⃣ channels his inner Damian Willemse to produce a sensational score in the corner 🍒#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/zel40VkOrx
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 1, 2023
Should this strategy fail to yield results, Leinster can always fall back on the tried-and-tested tactics that have served them well throughout the season - executing strike plays from the back of the lineout. This adaptability in the face of opposition could prove to be a game-changer, demonstrating Leinster's readiness to switch gears and tactics as the match develops.
Looking back on tries La Rochelle conceded this year. Love this one by Gloucester . Great lines of running. #HeinekenChampionsCup #LEIvSR #LEIvLAR pic.twitter.com/bPdW6KjeGp
— Brett Igoe (@brett_igoe) May 15, 2023
As the clock ticks down to the ultimate face-off of the year between European rugby's top teams, both teams will have immersed themselves in exhaustive planning, where even the minutest detail could prove decisive. From seizing upon any vulnerabilities in La Rochelle's defence to potentially launching an offensive against Leinster’s breakdown, each team will have pinpointed a unique edge they believe could shift the balance in their favour.
The Leinster squad and their coaching staff have bided their time, eager for another crack at La Rochelle. In this high-stakes encounter, it may come down to which team can adapt and switch tactics on the field, play the referee and be in the best mental and physical shape in the last 10 minutes of the game.
The question remains: Have Leinster learnt from the hard lessons from their last two encounters, and can they crown Lancaster's Leinster tenure with a triumphant trophy? Or will Lancaster be forever haunted by the bitter memories of being outsmarted by a man hailing from Cork, plying his trade on France's west coast, and repeatedly getting the upper hand against Leinster? The countdown to the epic showdown has begun!
SEE ALSO: Porter Highlights The Insignificance Of URC For Leinster Compared To Champions Cup Glory