“They’ve a more settled group there, and that’s a call that we made.”
Now it all rides on Saturday for Leinster. The pressure, if it wasn’t sky high before, is huge now.
The big brawlers, and ballers, of Stade Rochelais are coming to Dublin and they will have relished seeing what Munster did to their opponents, in the Champions Cup final, last weekend.
Sides across Europe, and more recently South Africa, have told themselves that the flaw in Leinster’s game will be that they can be overpowered, at times, and thrown off their game. Slow them down and throw some kitchen sinks at them and they are human after all.
Leinster and their supporters will look at the starting XV from the loss to Munster and tell themselves that only three are probable starters for the game against the men from La Rochelle. Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw are all but certain to play. Jimmy O’Brien is likely to start on the right wing, or left if James Lowe does not play.
Leo Cullen spoke passionately, in the lead up to the semi final, about how his Leinster side was going all-out to capture the United Rugby Championship title. His team selection deeds said different. Both he and Stuart Lancaster hoped the wider squad, with some sprinkling of frontliners, would be enough to get by the road-dogs of Munster.
It must be noted that there were big players that were simply not available for selection – Johnny Sexton, James Lowe, James Ryan, Jamie Osborne and the man that had been de facto ‘A’ captain all season, Rhys Ruddock. Munster fans can name-drop Murray, Snyman, Nash, Fekitoa and Ahern but such is the nature of this unrelenting sport.
There was a look to the future, too. It would have been safer to start with Cian Healy or Andrew Porter at loosehead and Jordan Larmour on the wing, but they went with Michael Milne and Tommy O’Brien. Harry Byrne and Ryan Baird, two Ireland internationals, also got a taste of a big semi-final start. Milne had another tough outing but Leinster will hope it stands to the young prop, in time.
There were three Ireland stars on the bench – Healy, Josh van der Flier and one-cap Joe McCarthy – but it was genuinely surprising not to see the likes of Furlong, Sheehan, Doris and Ross Byrne there as the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ options.
‘We have to accept the consequences’
“You have got to give Munster credit”, Leo Cullen reflected after his side’s 16-15 defeat. “They’ve a more settled group there, and that’s a call that we made. We have to accept the consequences of that now.”
Although many coaches would have opted to deflect the manner of the loss to some on-field decisions, or spoken of a tough schedule being foisted upon them, Cullen was quick to give Munster their credit.
He struck the wrong tone, though, by trying his best to look ahead to next weekend’s final. This defeat will hang like a pall around Leinster for a while yet, no matter how much Cullen spoke about moving on to the next challenge, and how exciting this week would be.
Leinster were hoping that their squad could get them to the final URC show-piece but they were left exposed by a focused, fearless (and yet wasteful) Munster side. Had Munster been more clinical, Jack Crowley would not have even needed to step up as drop goal hero.
In the cold light of day, Leinster and their outrageously talented squad won the 2020/21 PRO14 title but have now been eliminated from the URC at the semi-finals in two successive seasons, and been outgunned by La Rochelle twice [2021 semi-final and 2022 final].
This is the pressure Leinster are now under. If they do not get the job done, on Saturday, the past three seasons will feel like a big under-achievement. It reads harsh but these are the stakes we are playing with.
If they win on Saturday, there will be regrets, but the big prize will be in the bag and a fifth star will get stitched above the crest.
This is is knife-edge of elite sport. This is make or break.
WATCH HOUSE OF RUGBY HERE:
- “Jack had the balls to knock it over, so here we go” – Peter O’Mahony
- Mack Hansen up against three Leinster stars for Players’ Player of the Year
- Johnny Sexton’s most cherished jersey swap shows how seriously he takes his rugby
- Jack Crowley kicks last-gasp drop goal to seal stunning Munster victory
- “So we’re all just copying Leinster, are we?” – Munster bristle at post-match comments