London Irish, Exeter and Harlequins face SA trips in Champions Cup pool stageJun 28 | 1 min read
Heineken Champions Cup final: Relentless Leinster target redemption and European history
Leinster face a showdown with La Rochelle and Ronan O’Gara with a record-equalling fifth European title on the line. Watch the action on Saturday from 4pm on BT Sport.
Leinster have surged through the Champions Cup with staggering ruthlessness and an inexorable momentum. Now, they face La Rochelle – the very side that ended their hopes last year – for a shot at redemption and a record-equalling fifth title.
An emphatic semi-final performance dethroned Toulouse weeks after English leaders Leicester were dispatched. Coronavirus cancellations aside, they are unbeaten in the competition and have blown away their opponents with impunity.
With 13 Ireland internationals named in their starting XV against Toulouse, they are a Test side in all but name. Even characterising them as Ireland-lite would be being disingenuous.
The province are monitoring the fitness of Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe who has been shortlisted for the EPCR European Player of the Year award after a sensational campaign.
He is the competition’s top try-scorer with 10 in six matches and has been nominated for the prestigious award alongside teammates Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier.
Fit-again Jordan Larmour, named man-of-the-match in Leinster’s bonus-point victory over Munster in the URC on Saturday, reported no new issues and could feature in Marseille.
Johnny Sexton, star of all four European titles – in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2018 – will renew his rivalry with Ronan O’Gara, La Rochelle coach and one of the greatest Munster players of all time.
Sexton memorably celebrated in O’Gara’s face in the 2009 semi-final and the legendary pair were embroiled in a prolonged tussle for the Ireland No 10 jersey in the ensuing years.
It was a rivalry that gripped a nation. Their relationship improved when they were re-acquainted at Racing 92 in 2013, but the competitive edge is never far from the surface.
O’Gara got one over his old provincial rivals at the semi-final stages last season in one of the biggest wins of his fledgling coaching career before losing the final to Toulouse.
The 45-year-old is already at the top of his game as a coach and his much-changed side warmed up for the final by clinching a crucial Top 14 win over Stade Francais on Saturday.
Only Victor Vito and Jonathan Danty were retained from the side that beat Racing in the Champions Cup semi-final for the victory that kept their domestic hopes alive.
Will Skelton made a surprise appearance as a late substitute and could be in contention for the final after recovering from a calf injury that kept him out of the quarter and semi-final wins in Europe. The influential Australian helped Saracens beat Leinster in the 2019 final and his return would be a huge boost.
Conversely, double World Cup winner Vito is in a race against time to play in what would be his final appearance for the club after limping off at the Marcel-Deflandre stadium.
They are unbeaten in Europe this season and have made great strides recently but were disappointing in both the Top 14 and Champions Cup finals last year, with Toulouse getting the better of them in both games.
“It is very possible to do what we did against Leinster last season, but we are aware they have got better, and we most definitely have got better as well,” said O’Gara. “There are elements in our game that we need to be better at to give ourselves a fighting chance.”
“We are a team that is starting to believe in itself, and I hope that we are good enough on Saturday. Leinster are humming, churning out performances and spitting up the opposition easily. You are just hoping they will find it more difficult against us.”
It’s two top-end teams going at it in the Champions Cup final
- Stuart Lancaster
Leinster dominated holders Toulouse to reach their first final sine 2019 and are enjoying a golden period with Sexton – whose battle with opposite number Ihaia West could be decisive – Jamison Gibson-Park, Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and company all in sterling form.
Spurred on by the prospect of a fifth European star, they have been a cut above the rest so far. Coach Stuart Lancaster has built a dynasty in Dublin alongside Leo Cullen, but he is aware of the threat La Rochelle will pose in Marseille.
“They’ve evolved their game,” he said. “I think they’re a better attacking team now. Defensively they’re incredibly strong with a lot of breakdown threats and a good kicking game as well.
“It’s what it should be. It’s two top-end teams going at it in the Champions Cup final.”
“It’s huge for the club,” added Henshaw. “The history of this competition, it’s such a special competition to win. Hopefully, come Saturday, we’ll be there.”
La Rochelle’s strength undoubtedly comes in their forward power and their pack cannot be ignored. Their sheer force proved too much for Leinster last year and they will do everything to slow the game down on Saturday.
Leinster look a complete outfit though and have the propensity to dig in and deliver another European title.
Watch the Heineken Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle on Saturday from 4pm on BT Sport 2.