Leinster boss identifies game-changing moment in Champions Cup triumph over La Rochelle

David Skippers
Ryan Baird try Leinster v La Rochelle Champions Cup QF 2024 - Alamy.jpg

Leinster flanker Ryan Baird scores a try in the Champions Cup quarter-final against La Rochelle.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen was full of praise for his players after they advanced to the Investec Champions Cup semi-finals and identified the turning point in their 40-13 victory over La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium.

The Irish province made a fantastic start to their quarter-final against the defending champions and raced into a 21-6 lead by the 38th minute, before La Rochelle struck back courtesy of a Louis Penverne try just before half-time.

Flashback to 2023’s final

That brought back memories of last year’s Champions Cup final between these teams when Leinster also had a 17-point lead before La Rochelle launched a stunning fightback to clinch a 27-26 victory.

Leinster reacted differently, however, and came out firing in the second half with Ryan Baird crossing the whitewash just four minutes after the restart and Ross Byrne’s successful conversion meant they had restored their 17-point lead.

And Cullen feels that Baird’s five-pointer was the game-changing moment which paved the way to victory.

“Whatever about giving away the try before half-time, getting the try just after half-time was massively important, to get the 17-point buffer,” he told RTÉ Sport.

“We know La Rochelle have had to travel, and how much of that journey is still in the legs for them. You have to put them into a position where they’re a bit uncomfortable.

“The two finals we’ve lost, as painful as they’ve been, there’s rich learning for us always, and making sure you never sit back on that lead is the big thing. You come unstuck, and we’ve lost, giving up tries in the last minute of the game over in Marseille, and last seven or eight minutes this time last year.

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“Much better intent at the start of the second half, to keep playing, score, and then score another couple of tries.

“There’s other parts of the performance we can definitely get better on as well. That’s what we need to try focus on.”

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara had similar feelings about his side’s defeat and believes his team’s poor start to the second half was a big reason for their loss.

“Being 10 points down at half-time was fantastic, we were obviously very happy with that,” he said.

“After the first try, a soft try four minutes into the second half, I think it was [the turning point]. Seventeen points against a quality outfit is too much, against a quality outfit with 36 minutes left.”

O’Gara conceded that Leinster were the better team on the day and the loss was the the Top 14 outfit’s first in the Champions Cup since the 2021 final against Toulouse.

‘The better team won’

“Bitterly disappointed, but probably easier to move on because the better team won. They were more accurate, more decisive, smarter, and took their chances well,” he added.

“It’s disappointing but we’ve had wonderful times in this competition. You can’t just throw everything out, even though a good review is necessary. You have to compliment the hungrier, better team who won today.

“Fair play to Leinster, it’s been an unbelievable battle over the last number of years and I hope we can get back to a level where we can compete with them.”

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