Leinster eye record-equalling fifth Euro crown
A Johnny Sexton-led Leinster will take on 2021 runners-up La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup in Marseille on Saturday eyeing a record-equalling fifth contintental crown.
MARSEILLE - A Johnny Sexton-led Leinster will take on 2021 runners-up La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup in Marseille on Saturday eyeing a record-equalling fifth contintental crown.
Toulouse beat La Rochelle last year for a fifth European title, but Leinster, with Ireland skipper Sexton to the fore, hammered the defending champions in the semi-finals to set up an intriguing match up against a French side coached by Munster legend Ronan O'Gara.
"Obviously this final would have been different if it had been Munster, but at the same time, they're massive opponents," said O'Gara, who has transformed La Rochelle since taking over in 2019 after a coaching stint with the Crusaders.
Leinster, who previously won the tournament in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2018, and lost the 2019 final, "are a team against which I've played a lot of matches as a player, a team for which I have a lot of respect, who are currently really strong", added O'Gara, who vied with Sexton for the Ireland fly-half shirt.
"But that's all in the past, today I'm La Rochelle coach with a big chance to win this final and that's very cool."
To better prepare for the final against Leinster, impressive 40-17 winners over Toulouse in their semi-final, O'Gara said he had revisited video of La Rochelle's 32-23 victory over Sexton's team in the last four of last season's Cup.
"Of course we've looked at some images of last year's semi-final but that was 12 months ago," said O'Gara, who as a player with Munster won the European Cup in 2006 and 2008.
"They've really progressed in their game and us as well. At the same time, it gives us a lot of confidence, but I prefer we concentrate on our game, and settle things.
"It's up to us to impose our game," he said. "It'll be important to play territory and in the right zones.
"When they arrive in our 22, they're a tough team to stop. They're very well structured so we need to control the ball well."
La Rochelle captain Gregory Alldritt echoed O'Gara's sentiments.
"It's the type of challenge I love," the free-roaming backrow forward said, calling the current Leinster crop "clinical, very accurate".
"They play pattern after pattern, but it's so well executed it's efficient."
Alldritt added: "Leinster make up three-quarters of the Ireland team, with practically the same gameplan. Our goal will be to try to disrupt what they're used to doing."
La Rochelle go into Saturday's game on the back of three defeats in finals, having lost to Toulouse in last season's Top 14 and European Cup showdowns, as well as the 2019 European Challenge Cup.
"If I need five finals to win one, sign me up straightaway," Alldritt said. "The goal is to win a title. We don't talk about defeat because if we start talking about it, it's the end.
"I'm convinced we can win this against Leinster and that we will win."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Leinster, with star flanker Josh van der Flier saying: "There's a hunger, certainly, in the team to go back there and to win it.
"I wouldn’t say we feel a huge amount of pressure because obviously it's such a hard thing to win. It's a very, very difficult competition, a huge number of great teams.
"But definitely, there's a huge desire and hunger from the team, from everyone, from me personally to get to that stage and to win."
Van de Flier added: "Looking at the team and the squad, there's a lot of us on the team who wouldn't have played in a European final before. It's certainly not something that we're used to, so it's very, very exciting."
Leinster boss Leo Cullen, the only person to have won an European title as player and coach, said he hoped for "a great game. We obviously want to win and we know they are desperate to win as well".
O'Gara, Cullen added, "has such a strong affiliation with this tournament, he will be desperate" to win it.