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Mick Galwey: Ronan O’Gara will surely lead Ireland one day after Aviva miracle

La Rochelle’s defeat of Leinster could have long-term impact for Ireland team


Mick Galwey

A good big ’un will always beat a good little ’un. It’s one of the truest lines in sport and so it was at the Aviva Stadium where La Rochelle’s physical power was way too much for Leinster in the Heineken Cup final.

The Leinster scrum was mashed to pieces, there’s no other way to put it.

They were mauled to death, they were beaten at the rucks.

We were told Leinster had learned from the loss in the final last year in Marseille to the same opponents – that their pack would be bigger and stronger next time around.

Eh, no. Uini Atonio, Will Skelton, Gregory Alldritt and their buddies simply pushed Leinster around the Aviva’s lush surface as they wished in a performance hewn from the confidence they had of being defending champions.

What other team could come back from being 17-0 down after 12 minutes, and playing in the opposition’s home ground?

La Rochelle’s coach Ronan O’Gara knew the measure of his men and they played superbly.

This win is a huge feather in his coaching cap now, and surely puts the Corkman in line to lead Ireland one day.

To instil the belief in his group to come back from that shocking start is the measure of a true leader of men.

You have to say La Rochelle, though composed of Frenchmen, Kiwis, Aussies, Fijians and Samoans, are probably good enough to win the World Cup if they could get into the competition.

Certainly they beat most of the world’s No. 1 team yesterday with everything against them.

For Leinster, this is a crushing, crushing blow.

This is the second year in a row that they were comfortably the best team in the early rounds of the URC and the European Cup. Yet it is now three lost finals and a semi-final in 13 months.

It’s now evident that beating up on Scarlets and Glasgow in the URC is no way to get ready for a Top 14 team like La Rochelle when everything is on the line.

There’s nothing Leinster can do about it, bar asking to join the Top 14 in France.

But it was cruel to see players like Josh van der Flier and Robbie Henshaw in tears at the end.

They had given their all, but a year’s work had gone up in smoke. No winners medals secured.

Where did it go wrong? Well, that physical power that Leo Cullen promised Leinster fans would be found after last year’s defeat wasn’t there.

Jason Jenkins was the only forward he brought in last summer who might have broken into his best starting XV, but he didn’t start the big South African yesterday.

So, basically, Leinster were going with the pack that got done by La Rochelle last year. They were turned over again!

Injuries didn’t help. Was Johnny Sexton worth two points yesterday? He surely was.

Ross Byrne has kicked very well for club and country this season, in Sexton’s absence. But he left four points behind him yesterday in missed conversions. Leinster lost by a point.

And if Sexton was on the pitch, would he have gone for the posts with that penalty just inside the La Rochelle half with three minutes left?

Or would, in the frantic finale, the Leinster team have had the confidence in Johnny to manoeuvre a drop-goal chance – that’s all it would have taken to win the match.

Losing James Ryan and Henshaw during the contest were big blows too.

A pair of key men lost at vital times of the match.

Even, almost at the end, there was not the composure to benefit from Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s dreadful error, when he kicked the ball straight down James Lowe’s throat with a minute to go instead of finding touch.

And while I’m mentioning James, some of his kicking yesterday was terrible, costing Leinster many yards.

You can’t do that in what was, to all intents and purposes, a Test match.

Speaking of a Test match, maybe this loss will serve as a wake-up call to Irish rugby flying on a magic carpet of success of late.

Leinster provide the bulk of Andy Farrell’s Irish squad.

You can be sure coaches of the teams who Ireland will vie with for the Webb Ellis Trophy next autumn were watching this game.

What will they take out of it? Simples, play your biggest men against Ireland, not necessarily your best men, and grind them down.

That’s twice it has happened now and opposition coaches and managers will pick up on it quickly.

So it falls to Munster next Saturday to win a trophy this season for Irish club rugby.

But they have to do what La Rochelle did yesterday and go to the home stadium of the opposition, the Stormers in Cape Town, and win.

What with my native Kerry losing in Killarney yesterday, it wasn’t a good day for favourite backers. They too found out that beating up on Munster teams won’t get the job done when you are about to play the elite.

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