Johnny Sexton.

Leinster to keep La Rochelle’s muscle men in check

LIAM BOTHAM COLUMN
IRC NEWSLETTER ON FRIDAYS

Three of the four clubs contesting this weekend’s European Club finals are from France. Irish champions, Leinster, are the only club that can prevent a French whitewash as we come to the conclusion of the exciting 2021 European Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup.

The Champions Cup will be decided in Marseille, neutral ground in theory, but still with a predominantly French crowd and one has to say for this marginal advantage, and their actual ability as a rugby team, La Rochelle are most certainly not the underdogs for this game as some pundits would have it.

This is indeed a well-balanced contest between two excellent teams. I’ve noted a few times in this column my belief that Leinster are the best club in Europe. I hope they can prove me right on Saturday because La Rochelle has a mean pack of forwards and some steamrollers in their backline. If they can get on the front foot, they could force this game into a decider in which sheer power overrides all-round skill.

Leinster have true depth. Arguably, their only weakness lies in their front three who, skilful as they are, will have to stand as firm as they’ve ever done against La Rochelle’s bulwark of brawn. Leinster’s loosehead Andrew Porter concedes 32kg to La Rochelle’s tighthead, Uini Atonio. The former has athleticism and speed, which makes him a real handful; the latter is all bulk and power and is not surprisingly noted for his dominance in the scrum.


There are a few other key matchups to consider, and it starts with the face-off between Number 8’s Jack Conan (Leinster) and Gregory Aldritt (La Rochelle). Conan has improved considerably and with his movement, pace and footwork has been a key player in Leinster’s formidable pack. Aldritt, following a great Six Nations, is considered to be the best back-row in Europe at present with his power in the rucks and his skills at the breakdown.

At the coalface, La Rochelle are hoping Number 9 Tewera Kerr-Barlow will be able to take his place against rival Jamison Gibson Park. Kerr-Barlow, with a broken hand, was ruled out of this clash but they are still trying to do everything they can to get him ready, which shows how important he is to the team. The excellent Gibson-Park is a bright decision-maker who delivers balls at pace to Johnny Sexton, and their partnership has been central to Leinster’s dominance this season.

Sexton, at 36, is in the form of his life and likely to take his incredible momentum into his duel with Ihaia West, a talent of note but prone to falter under pressure in big matches, including last year’s Champions Cup showpiece event where he missed two penalty attempts in the 22-17 defeat to Toulouse. Games are often decided by the dominant Number 10 – if this all comes down to Johnny, Leinster’s got the Cup safe!

At centre, Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw faces Jonathan Danty in what is sure to be an exciting battle. Henshaw is a superb defender and a good carrier. Danty is physical and has improved his all-round game in recent years, especially his breakdown work.

To make a call, I’d side marginally with Leinster, expecting them to employ their method of running rivals ragged with persistent pace. They do everything without wasting a second, they continue mercilessly and that will be the key to brining La Rochelle’s band of big boys to a standstill. But if La Rochelle can keep the ball in the rucks and mauls as long as possible and slow the game down with power play, this one will go right down to the wire!

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Toulon play Lyon in the final of the European Challenge Cup tonight and in this case it’s arguably easier to select the winner with confidence. Toulon were once the dominant force in continental Rugby Union, but in recent years they haven’t hit the highs that saw the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau leading them to European triumphs in 2013, 2014 and 2015. They can get back to former glory here.

This will be the third meeting between Toulon and Lyon in the EPCR Challenge Cup, with Toulon winning both previous fixtures by an average of 13 points; this will be the seventh time that a Challenge Cup Final has been contested by two French sides. A popular media prediction this week has been an 8-10 point win for Toulon. I’ll go with that.

Lyon lock Joe Kpoku, up against Toulon’s accomplished star Eben Etzebeth, reckons it will be closer than most seem to think. He said: “We’re not focusing on the history – it’s more about taking each game as it comes. We haven’t won anything yet. Thankfully, we’ve secured that spot in the final, but there’s still a journey to get that cup.

“Looking at Toulon, they’re on a bit of a good run. We know it’s going to be tough, especially in the forwards. They’ve got some electric backs too, so we’ve got to stop them from getting into the game. The set-piece is going to be the big one – that will set the tone for who comes out on top and where the game is going to be won.”

Both games are a must-watch, enjoy!

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