La Rochelle 32 Leinster 23
By the end, in truth, Leinster were well beaten. Despite a promising start which saw them strike first, they were already hanging onto the slenderest of leads at half-time before being blown away by La Rochelle’s power and potency. Damn, they’re good.
Ultimately, there was really only one team in it after the first half hour or so, as the La Rochelle pack did a number on Leinster’s through their dominant maul and increasingly their superior scrum.
Their livewire hooker Pierre Bourgarit peeled off that maul to devastating effect as Will Skelton and Uini Atonio put their shoulder to the wheel with big performances as they – Grégory Alldritt et al – broke the gain line and took the edge in the breakdown.
Initially, Leinster sought to win the contact zone more with good footwork and seeking shoulders while maintaining a high tempo but after a bright start increasingly La Rochelle’s line speed and strength over the ball blunted their attack. They don’t have the best defensive record by a distance in the Top 14 without a reason.
As feared, their line speed, tackle execution and ferocious competitiveness at the ruck left Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour to try and make things happen out of very little. But the ball carriers became isolated and were peaked off with ease.
By contrast, Leinster’s defence became quite passive, as the home side had joy from running hard and straight through their big men, while mixing it up with more variety, namely chips and crosskicks as well as width and the sniping of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and some pick and goes up the middle.
Kerr-Barlow and Ihaia West, who kicked 22 points, controlled the game, but had an armchair ride.
Initially, Leinster were on the front foot literally from the off when Ross Byrne’s high, hanging kick-off was fumbled by Dillyn Leyds, who struggled in the bright sun. This led to a lineout inside the 22 but when Reda Wardi was pinged for not rolling, Byrne surprisingly missed the 30 metre penalty.
Even so, a fifth penalty against the home side, and the first after a warning, led to Wiaaan Liebenberg being binned for offside on the try line. A second tap penalty by Rónan Kelleher eventually led to Tadhg Furlong rumbling over under the posts for Byrne to convert.
La Rochelle responded by first going to the air, and then to their maul, earning the penalty with which West opened their account.
After using the full width of the pitch off another maul, West added a wobbly drop goal, but this was quickly cancelled out by a Byrne penalty when Skelton didn’t support his own 140kg.
Leinster were rewarded for keeping the ball inside their own 22 and playing with a high tempo off Jack Conan’s quick tap, Ringrose making rare inroads with his footwork before Victor Vito didn’t release after the tackle for Byrne to make it 13-6.
But Bourgarit’s strength over the ball when Ryan picked and went on his own ended another promising attack before Byrne was pinged for not rolling away and West landed his third penalty.
La Rochelle should really have struck for the lead after a spillage by Lowe, who had an unexceptional game, was followed by Dulin regathering his own chip from deep. After another snipe by Kerr-Barlow, West crosskicked to Vito who was denied a try by Larmour, with a little help from Luke McGrath. Instead they had to settle for West’s fourth penalty.
For the third time Leyds couldn’t pick up a high restart in the afternoon sun, leading to another attacking lineout. But after Lowe’s flat skip pass hit Larmour, his inside ball was too low for McGrath and when Vito was strong over the ball Ringrose went off his feet.
Although behind by a point, La Rochelle had the momentum, whereas Leinster would have lamented not making more of their good start, Liebenberg’s yellow card and territory.
They were also forced into a change at half-time with Rhys Ruddock departing due to a calf injury and Ryan Baird coming on. In hindsight, Scott Fardy might have been a better choice.
After a disconcertingly big La Rochelle scrum earned an attacking lineout, Baird was pinged for a high tackle on Bourgarit, which was harsh given how low the hooker dipped. West kicked La Rochelle in front for the first time.
La Rochelle, seeking dominance at the scrum, went too early and Leinster changed tack by attacking one off. When Geoffrey Doumayrou tackled Ringrose off the ball, Byrne briefly restored the lead.
Lowe was harshly pinged for supposedly placing both feet onto the ball after making a good read in defence. West duly kicked La Rochelle back in front before hitting the upright from halfway. It might have been worse for Leinster as Larmour left West’s cross kick to bounce off the corner flag but the ball eluded Grégory Alldritt before Hugo Keenan touched down.
Bourgarit won another penalty in the jackal when surviving cleanouts by each of the Leinster front-row although his throw was also picked off. But again McGrath’s box kick offered no respite and Skelton put La Rochelle on the front foot once more, bouncing Ed Byrne and Ross Byrne, before Josh van der Flier made a try saving tackle inches from the line on Kerr-Barlow.
In any case, Vito powered off the scrum before Alldritt burrowed over. It felt inevitable. West’s conversion made it 25-16.
La Rochelle’s defence also had Leinster’s attack under wraps, withstanding a rare sortie until Leyds was given a fortuitous penalty in the jackal. A miscued kick straight into the air by Lowe led to another penalty for offside and after La Rochelle went to the corner, Skelton peeled off their potent maul and powered through the two Byrnes again to seal the deal.
When Ross Byrne dummied Raymond Rhule to score, and converted, it was out of keeping with the trend of the second period. And it mattered not a jot.
Scoring sequence: 9 mins Furlong try, Byrne con 0-7; 16 mins West pen 3-7; 19 mins West drop goal 6-7; 21 mins Byrne pen 6-10; 27 mins Byrne pen 6-13; 33 mins West pen 9-13; 37 mins West pen 12-13; (half-time 12-13); 47 mins West pen 15-13; 52 mins Byrne pen 15-16; 57 mins West pen 18-16; 66 mins Alldritt try, West con 25-16; 74 mins Skelton try, West con 32-16; 77 mins R Byrne try and con 32-23.
La Rochelle: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Levani Botia, Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Tawera Kerr Barlow; Reda Wardi, Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio; Romain Sazy (capt), Will Skelton’ Grégory Alldritt, Wiaan Liebenberg, Victor Vito. Replacements: Pierre Aguillon for Botia (49 mins), Dany Priso for Wardi (53 mins), Kevin Gourdon for Vito (53-60 and for Liebenberg 60 mins), Arthur Joly for Atonio, Facundo Bosch for Bourgarit, Thomas Lavault for Sazy (all 69 mins), Arthur Retiere for Kerr-Barlow, Jules Plisson for West (both 76 mins).
Sinbinned: Liebenberg (7-17 mins).
Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: Ryan Baird for Ruddock (half-time), Ed Byrne for Healy, Andrew Porter for Furlong (both 56 mins), Scott Fardy for Toner, James Tracy for Kelleher (both 72 mins), Rory O’Loughlin for Larmour (76 mins). Not used: Rowan Osborne, Ciarán Frawley.
Sinbinned: Lowe (55-65 mins).
Referee: Matthew Carley (England).