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Stade Rochelais vs Leinster Rugby
European Champions Cup
Stade Marcel-Deflandre
Sunday, 2nd May 2021, 16:00 (15:00 Irish time)

Live: BT Sports

Well Munster really, really enjoyed that! Like ... to an almost embarrassing level.

Down to their 4th/5th choices half-backs, Leinster were woefully out-matched in that most crucial area and frankly there would be something seriously wrong with Munster first choice halfbacks if they weren't. Yes the pack and the outside backs named were of a better level and will be disappointed with their performance but if your halfbacks aren't firing, there's only going to be one winner.

The reports of Munster singing "Stand up and Fight" in the RDS dressing room after are quite amusing, especially considering the utter lack of fight they showed in the Pro14 final against Leinster's full side in a game that actually mattered. Their oldschool dirty tactics, especially Stephen Archer's Michael Flatley impression on James Ryan, will be tucked away in Leinster's memory bank the next time they meet.

But this week Leinster have a serious game to concentrate on as they travel to the South West coast of France to play La Rochelle for the first time. La Rochelle are a relatively recent addition to the top level in France. They really exploded on the scene back in 2016 with their dazzling brand of attacking rugby standing out amongst the dull fare of the Top 14. They topped the table in the Top14 but lost narrowly in the semi-final to Toulon. Since then they've chugged along nicely but this season they seem to have gone up to another level under the stewardship of an old Leinster friend and an old rival.

Their director of rugby Jonno Gibbes began his coaching career at Leinster, taking charge of the forwards for a hugely successful six years between 2008 and 2014. He then moved on to become Clermont's forwards' coach and had a brief spell at Ulster before becoming the top man at La Rochelle. Gibbes will be heading back to Clermont next season and he will hand over the reigns to his current head coach Ronan O'Gara.

O'Gara was no favourite of Leinster fans as a player (when he was wearing the red jersey at least). To be fair to O'Gara though he has astutely built up a fine coaching CV since leaving Munster. Initially he followed Johnny Sexton to Racing as kicking and then defence coach and helped them win a Top14 title. He then made the unusual decision to gain some experience of Super rugby with the Crusaders in New Zealand. The experience he gained there made him a perfect appointment to join Gibbes team at La Rochelle two years ago and the two have the team in second place in the Top14 table just five points behind champions Toulouse but with a game in hand.

They have named an impressive side for Sunday with a mix of massive forwards and quality backs. Reda Wardi, Pierre Bourgarit and the gargantuan Uini Atonio are named to start in the front row. Another monster of a man Will Skelton, who did so much damage to Leinster playing for Saracens in the 2019 final, plays in the second row alongside their skipper Romain Sazy. The French number eight Gregory Alldritt is arguably the best back row in Europe at the moment, but he's named as blindside flanker to allow for the inclusion of All Black Victor Vito at number eight. In something of a surprise Wiaan Liebenberg is selected ahead of the all-action Kevin Gourdon at openside to complete the pack.

Their kiwi half backs Tawera Kerr Barlow and Ihaia West have overcome injuries to be named to start. Both are excellent players although West's goal-kicking can be a touch flaky at time. The Fijian Levani Botia looks like a throwback to the 70's with his headband and moustache but he's a quality player who can play in the back row and the outside backs. He's named at inside centre alongside the elusive Geoffrey Doumayrou who has the habit of ghosting through for tries. Two Springbooks Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule are named on the wings and French international Brice Dulin is simply a class act at full back.

For Leinster, it was no surprise to see Johnny Sexton ruled out with the brain injury he picked up against Exeter. But Ross Byrne came on that day and played possibly his finest game for Leinster, despite being on the end of a couple of high shots. He is named to partner Luke McGrath who returns to skipper the team from scrum-half. Robbie Henshaw is back at inside centre to partner Garry Ringrose who will hopefully be better for the runout last week. Hugo Keenan returns at full back so Jordan Larmour moves back to the right wing with James Lowe retained on the left.

It's almost all change in the pack as Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong return to the front row. Devin Toner is picked alongside James Ryan who is the only forward retained from last week. The in-form trio of Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan return to start in the back row. The Munster bound Rowan Osborne is fit to be named on the bench alongside Ciaran Frawley who will hopefully not have to cry off late again on Sunday.

Leinster are narrow favourites to win but this will be a really tough challenge especially against two coaches who know their game so well. They will look to keep the big La Rochelle pack on the move constantly and will also target their lineout. Cian Healy will have a job on his hands against the massive Antonio but if he can get under the big man, he'll be able to cause him problems.

It will be tough but if Leinster can repeat the level of performance they showed in Sandy Park in the last round then they should hopefully have just enough to squeak home.

Team Lineups

Stade Rochelais

Leinster Rugby
Teams Brice Dulin 15 Hugo Keenan
Dillyn Leyds 14 Jordan Larmour
Geoffrey Doumayrou 13 Garry Ringrose
Levani Botia 12 Robbie Henshaw
Raymond Rhule 11 James Lowe
Ihaia West 10 Ross Byrne
Tawera Kerr Barlow 9 Luke McGrath (C)

Reda Wardi 1 Cian Healy
Pierre Bourgarit 2 Ronan Kelleher
Uini Atonio 3 Tadhg Furlong
Romain Sazy (C) 4 Devin Toner
Will Skelton 5 James Ryan
Gregory Alldritt 6 Rhys Ruddock
Wiaan Liebenberg 7 Josh van der Flier
Victor Vito 8 Jack Conan

Replacements Facundo Bosch 16 James Tracy
Dany Priso 17 Ed Byrne
Arthur Joly 18 Andrew Porter
Thomas Lavault 19 Scott Fardy
Kevin Gourdon20 Ryan Baird
Arthur Retiere 21 Rowan Osborne
Jules Plisson 22 Ciaran Frawley
Pierre Aguillon 23 Rory O'Loughlin

Not Considered
due to Injury

Conor O'Brien,
Dan Leavy,
Adam Byrne,
Max Deegan,
Jimmy O'Brien,
Jamison Gibson-Park,
Jack Dunne,
Jonathan Sexton,
Will Connors,
Caelan Doris,
Harry Byrne
Officials Referee: Matthew Carley (RFU),
Assistant referees: Andrew Jackson (England), Wayne Falla (England),
TMO: Ian Tempest (England)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2021-04-30