Loose Pass: La Rochelle’s plan, Ealing Trailfinders’ aspirations and hot property

Lawrence Nolan

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with planning, the building job at Ealing Trailfinders and a new coach in demand…

The plan

All week, the soundbites were almost identical. ‘Is this the greatest European team ever?’ asked some columns, ‘This is the greatest European team ever’ proclaimed others. Leinster were described, variously, as being a team of ‘savage beauty’, a ‘model for professional rugby’ and a ‘historical benchmark team’.

There was only one real notable soundbite from La Rochelle that threatened to vaguely resonate among the serial fawning over Leinster’s well-rested and near-perfect squad, which was the one from coach Ronan O’Gara two days before the final. “We have a plan.”

It was not, as it turned out, a particularly nuanced plan. It involved having some big guys running extremely hard at Leinster’s less big guys, defending aggressively – to the extent that the penalty count for offside alone threatened to derail the entire effort – and then bringing on some more exceptionally big guys to keep up the battery (especially in defence) in the final quarter when, fresh and well-rested or not, Leinster were perceived to be a little less intense than earlier in games.

Rugby has tried and strained and struggled to get away from the ‘size beats all’ mantra which is a near-inescapable fact of life in a game dominated by collisions, but on Saturday was yet more proof that in the tight confines of a major trophy final, it is rarely the smaller team that triumphs any more.

Saturday was also proof of Eddie Jones’ mantra that teams who concede more penalties usually win. If Leinster were able to keep the scoreboard ticking over as a result of the early shower of kickable penalties conceded by La Rochelle, later in the game they were to find developing their rhythm almost impossible as their opposition found its timing in the defensive line and its footing in the rucks. If the offsides were responsible for most of the points against, they were also responsible for the defence finding its timing and not conceding many more.

Only the asinine trip and yellow card heading into the final quarter threatened to derail the plan completely; in the event it served almost to galvanise the men in yellow. But back to the soundbites, and to a legitimate question that might need asking: did Leinster have a plan? Not a style, not an attacking shape, not a superb team unit, not a sparkling set of skills, we know they had those, but was there actually a plan? Was there actually a weakness that Leinster had identified and set out to exploit? Was there a chink in the La Rochelle armour that the Leinstermen tried to chivvy open?

In the event, we actually think this might have been the ultimate difference between the sides. Leinster came and did, mostly, what they always do: confuse the midfield with some deft running lines, dummy loops and screen passes, make their breaks and finish them off. Yet from many a threatening position there seemed to be a curious reluctance to hammer nails in the coffin rather than just laboriously turn the screw. There seemed to be a belief that if they played as they normally play, the win would come, as long as the points kept trickling in. La Rochelle came and played Leinster, Leinster came and played a game of rugby.

This is only an impression – a simplistic one, given the margin of victory was a score in the final minute. But the team that was thought to be perhaps the greatest European team ever failed to close out a game against opposition that planned specifically to exploit its weakness, and thus the jury remains very much out on Leinster’s aspirations to all-time immortality.


The two teams who won this weekend, Lyon and La Rochelle, were both in France’s second tier less than a decade ago. Their success is a complete vindication of how France has managed to keep its rugby market open and encourage development of smaller clubs with great aspirations.

Money has talked, often not in a way synonymous with competitive integrity, while municipal stadia in which teams play is a significant factor, but with the glorious exception of Exeter, it is almost impossible to imagine similar coming to pass in England; witness the ridiculous double-standards applied to Ealing Trailfinders this season.

Ealing are not bowed. They are shrewdly picking up a number of Premiership cast-offs who are clear victims of the shrinking salary cap, while their ground redevelopment continues. Promotion, or qualification to go to the headmaster’s door and ask for it in a sweet little voice, is looking increasingly likely next season simply on the basis of the squad strength.

But with French rugby dominating Europe at every level, with even its third tier nearing professional status, it is becoming difficult to understand how English rugby and its clubs are battling so hard to remain solvent, or to understand why second-tier clubs harbouring genuine ambition remain so downtrodden.

Hot property

Back to that plan, and the man with it. There were a number of puns around the champions this weekend, with the team enjoying near home levels of support at the ‘Marseille Deflandres’ being this writer’s favourite one.

But most are unequivocal about the team who won it and the reason why: hence the new nickname ‘La Rog-chelle’.

O’Gara has done a fine job of doing as a coach what most would prefer to do as a player. A one-team man throughout his entire playing career, he recognised early that having spent his entire playing days with one side, he might need to be able to offer more experience as a coach than just the Ireland and Munster blueprints.

Everywhere he has gone, mentors have been impressed with his abilities to learn while players have been even more impressed with his ability to strategise and coax the best out of them.

All of which has left him coaching’s hottest property right now and surely in line for a track into an international set-up sooner rather than later. Intriguingly, the two posts most likely to be vacant after the next World Cup are at the helms of probably the two teams he would have counted among his most fierce enemies during his playing career: England and Wales. He wouldn’t would he?

READ MORE: Champions Cup Team of the Tournament: Leinster edge La Rochelle with just one other team featuring in our side