Leinster are favourites to win the Heineken Champions Cup by beating La Rochelle today. If they do so, they will match Toulouse’s record total of five Champions Cups. Munster and Ulster have also been European champions, Ulster admittedly in a season when English clubs boycotted the tournament. Neither Edinburgh or Glasgow had reached a final. Meanwhile, Scotland haven’t beaten Ireland since 2017. In the 1990s we beat them regularly, sometimes handsomely. We are now poor relations to Ireland.
Leinster may not win today, for La Rochelle, coached by the former Munster and Ireland hero Ronan O’Gara, are a fine side, battle-hardened finalists last year. Nevertheless Leinster, fielding an all-international XV, with more international plays on the bench, are expected to win, even in the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. The club is also top of the URC league table and favourites to win the knock-out stages. What is remarkable is the strength in depth which has allowed Leinster to omit their top players from almost all the URC fixtures. Johnny Sexton hasn’t played a league game since October. Only their New-Zealand-born wing, James Lowe, now a regular in the Ireland team, has played as many as six URC matches. Altogether 60 players have turned out for Leinster this season. Consequently the XV that takes the field today is unusually fresh for this late stage in the season, surely fresher than their La Rochelle opponents.
There is an extraordinary conveyer belt of talent in Dublin, so that, unlike Glasgow and Edinburgh, Leinster don’t have to trawl the southern hemisphere in search of players to strengthen the squad. That said, two of their stars hail from New Zealand, the aforementioned Lowe and the scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park. Gibson-Park has been outstanding this season, quick, nimble, secure and imaginative behind his formidable pack. You could say he is given an easy ride, just as Hawick scrum-halves used to have one in the distant days of the celebrated Green Machine, but Gibson-Park’s speed of thought, hands and feet has been a key to Leinster’s and Ireland’s play this season. He has contributed more than something to Sexton’s surge of Indian summer form. He is now as important to Leinster and Ireland as Antoine Dupont is to Toulouse and France.
Leinster play an all-court game of 15-man rugby. Other teams aspire to do likewise, Edinburgh and Glasgow among them, but nobody does it nearly as well. If you ask why, the answer is simple. They make very few mistakes. Their handling is wonderfully secure and their support play so good that players are almost never isolated. Both the Scottish clubs do a lot of fine things and score excellent tries, but all too often a promising movement ends with a handling error which surrenders the opportunity to their opponents. Then, because they have developed strength in depth, through the excellence of their academy and coaching at all levels, they are able to keep their first XV stars fresh, much fresher than comparable players in Scotland, or indeed in any of the other 6 Nations countries. When Leinster played Toulouse in their Heineken Cup semi-final, some of the Toulouse stars, even Dupont, looked a little weary in comparison with their opponents. Moreover, fewer matches usually means fewer injuries.
If La Rochelle are going to beat the odds and win today, they will surely have to keep possession, slow the game up, deny Leinster the control which allows them to play the game on their own terms. I would guess that the French club will have to win the mental battle, impose their will in order to dictate the pattern of play. They will have to dare to be dull.
Next week Glasgow have to go to Dublin for the URC quarter-finals. They will probably face what is on paper a weaker Leinster side than the one playing La Rochelle today, but it will still be a formidable one. On paper, again any Leinster side will start favourites against them. Glasgow, as Ali Price has said this week, will have nothing to lose. Except the match, of course.