Leinster will play in their sixth European Champions Cup final on Saturday afternoon, hoping to add a fifth star to their shirt, while Stade Rochelais will be hoping for a third time lucky after finishing runners-up in last year's final and the Top14 final. While there is a popular perception that this Leinster v La Rochelle final will be between a squad that wants to play fast rugby and a team that wants to take things slowly, a closer examination may reveal a different perspective. Stade Rochelais already has outwitted Leinster in last year's semi-final; but they offload more, have more breakdown steals, miss less tackles, and boast the tournament's best ball carrier and 140kg props.
Saturday will be won by the side that can maintain their composure, get their detail right under pressure, and seize the limited opportunities that arise.
We take a look at a number of areas that Leinster need to get right on Saturday.
1. Leo Cullen v Ronan O’Gara
While the majority of the Irish media has painted this final as a fight between Sexton and O'Gara, it will actually be a duel between two of Ireland's sharpest rugby minds on club rugby's grandest stage. Following their illustrious playing careers, Leo Cullen and Ronan O'Gara are now pursuing excellent coaching careers. With 128 caps, O'Gara was one of Ireland's greatest players, playing a key role in Munster's European Cup victories in 2006 and 2008. Cullen earned four stars on the Leinster shirt with three European victories (2009, 2011 & 2012) as a player (and as captain) and Cullen made history by becoming the first person to win Europe as both a player and a coach (2018). While Irish professional rugby has benefitted from an influx of foreign coaches, this competition has been won six times by Irish coaches (Williams (1), Kidney (2), McCall (3), Cullen (1)). As both O'Gara and Cullen are still in their early coaching careers, we can expect to see them collide frequently in the future, or possibly join forces for a national cause.
Coaches on the touchline needs to be a standard thing...pic.twitter.com/l9fmGmVNPs
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) May 3, 2022
2. Stats attack –a deep dive
A closer look at the statistics around both teams sees the contrast of styles of both teams and coaches.
The powerful French No. 8 Gregory Alldritt, who has already topped the rankings in this year's championship, is the biggest ball-carrying threat for Stade Rochelais. Caelan Doris and Jack Conan, on the other hand, are the next two players on the list.
It's interesting to see Stade Rochelais at the top of the conceded penalties list. A big penalty count against a club featuring Johnny Sexton might be devastating for Stade Rochelais, especially in a close game and with Leinster having yet to miss a penalty kick to goal in this year's tournament.
The searing heat of the Mediterranean may play a major role in the outcome of this epic battle. With temperatures expected to reach 30 degrees by kick-off, both teams will be affected as the game enters the fourth quarter. In the last quarter, Leinster and Stade Rochelais both gave up 38 percent and 33 percent of their points, respectively. Both sets of coaches' use of the bench may be a fascinating off field tussle.
Battle of the Breakdown
Stade Rochelais are the masters of European rugby when it comes to winning and slowing down opponents at the breakdown. Alldritt, Bourgarit, and Priso's poacher threats will be a major battleground for Leinster's backrow. Whichever side wins here will go on to win the championship. Leinster will be seeking quick ball to outrun the heavy Stade Rochelais pack, while O'Gara's men will be ready to stop it by any means necessary. Both teams will put pressure on referee Wayne Barnes in this area.
3. Leinster Opportunities
While Stade Rochelais will provide a significant physical threat to Leinster, this might also be a significant vulnerability. These huge men struggle with pace in open play, and players like Atonio or Skelton may struggle against the likes of Keenan, Ringrose, or Doris rushing into the space on either side of them.
The many ways Stade Rochelais will look to slow Leinster's Quick Ruck ball - This battle is key to the winning of the game #LEIvSR #HeinekenChampionsCup #Rugby pic.twitter.com/jMXyKJIEEG
— Brett Igoe (@brettruganalyst) May 26, 2022
In defence, Stade Rochelais look to come up and in and dominant the linear space but they will leave room in the wider channels, so Leinster should seek to get into that space early and pick off the midfield defenders on the way back.
While Leinster will have to wait for this opportunity to manifest itself, they must seize it when these defence pictures show.
While Stade Rochelais long-kicking game has served them well under O'Gara, their under-resourcing of the short-side space creates possibilities. Leinster must revert to the 15m line and establish a 15m route for players such as Lowe and O'Brien.
On Saturday, Leinster will need a lot of things to go their way if they are to bring the trophy back to Ireland. The fate of this arm wrestling will be determined by how they deal with the enormous Stade Rochelais scrum, O'Gara's savvy kicking game, and the individual talent of Botia, Danty and Alldritt.
Will Leo Cullen get his fifth star, or will Ronan O'Gara win his first trophy as head coach?