Leinster v La Rochelle: Five takeaways from the Champions Cup quarter-final as Jacques Nienaber’s influence telling in Irishmen’s ‘relentless’ display

Colin Newboult
Ryan Baird scoring a try for Leinster v La Rochelle in the 2024 Champions Cup.

Ryan Baird scoring a try for Leinster v La Rochelle in the 2024 Champions Cup.

Following a dominant 40-13 victory for Leinster over La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, here’s our five takeaways from the Champions Cup clash.

Top line

Leinster finally got the better of La Rochelle in a Champions Cup knockout encounter as they ended the Frenchmen’s reign over Europe and South Africa. Thanks to an outstanding display full of physicality, intensity and the trademark flair, they got revenge over Ronan O’Gara’s men and claimed a deserved victory.

They pretty much controlled the match from start to finish, going 23-6 ahead just shy of the interval through James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park tries, plus three penalties via the brilliant Ross Byrne.

Although the visitors could have made it nervy when Louis Penverne went over to reduce the arrears at the break, the home side were in no mood to give up a 17-point lead this time around. They duly reset, played with confidence and secured an impressive win via Ryan Baird, Dan Sheehan and Lowe tries in the second period.

Sheer brutality

It was always going to be physical and these sides duly delivered on that front. The hits were big and, in the main, legal, although we were surprised a couple of the shots were not given a sterner examination.

But ultimately, it was the Leinstermen who controlled the physical exchanges, dealing impressively with La Rochelle’s gargantuan units, Will Skelton and Uini Atonio. Even Levani Botia failed to make an impact, with the hosts’ cleaners so incredibly accurate at the breakdown.

Leo Cullen’s men fronted up, dominating the gain line and stopping the visitors from gaining any traction in phase play. They also had plenty of joy in the set-piece and, as a result, it allowed Gibson-Park to dictate proceedings and unleash their talented backline.

The coaches very much got the big selection calls right. Will Connors was fearsome in the tackle and contact area, while Jason Jenkins was similarly niggly, as well as being a key man in the lineout. They were great decisions from Cullen and his backroom staff, who were vindicated.

Leinster banish Champions Cup ghosts as La Rochelle’s three-peat dream emphatically ended

Fluid Leinster

The Irish province have not been at their best in attack this season. Legendary centre Brian O’Driscoll suggested that it was the departure of Stuart Lancaster which led to their issues, but Leinster showed here that they can still play.

Their dexterity on the gain line was in evidence, with forwards interlinking nicely, while Ross Byrne looked like a big-match player. The fly-half was assured in everything he did and worked well with fellow playmakers Jamie Osborne and Ciaran Frawley.

Osborne was the big revelation. While his talent has been evident for some time, this was easily the biggest clash of his young career, and he dovetailed nicely with Byrne. The centre’s kicking game was particularly useful and kept La Rochelle’s defence guessing throughout his time on the field.

The Nienaber factor

As everyone knows, Leinster played some incredible rugby when Lancaster was at the helm, but they failed to get the job done when it mattered most. The Springboks’ double Rugby World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber has since come in and the feeling was that he could add the required steel to get them over the line.

On this evidence, those predictions may well be right. This performance still had everything that Leinster have become renowned for, but there were a few subtle changes which suggests that Nienaber’s messages are getting through. Now, they still have to go and win the thing to prove that his influence has been positive, but the sheer relentlessness of their display was hugely impressive.

In defence, where the South African has built his reputation, they were utterly superb, flying up and shutting down the big La Rochelle carriers. Leinster have, in previous years, been bullied by the Frenchmen, but this time it was the hosts who were doing the tormenting.

That sheer defensive pressure and physicality, allied by the mentality which seems to have been instilled, meant that they never let the two-time champions get into their stride. It was ominously good from the Leinstermen.

Travel and La Rochelle’s form

For all the brilliance of the Irish outfit, it must not be forgotten that La Rochelle have had a lot of travelling over the past couple of weeks and that could have affected them. Equally, it has been quite evident that they are not playing nearly as well as they did in 2022 and 2023.

The away form in particular has been poor and there isn’t the same variety in their play this season. O’Gara’s ‘keep ball alive’ mantra has not been in evidence enough in 2023/24, with the French outfit looking one-dimensional on too many occasions.

When the opposition has matched them physically, they have lacked ideas and that theme continued on Saturday. With Leinster muscling up, La Rochelle got frustrated and that resulted in rash decisions and some utterly brainless penalties.

READ MORE: Leinster player ratings: James Lowe’s five try involvements and ‘sensational’ Jamison Gibson-Park sinks Champions Cup holders