‘ROGchelle’ aim for hat-trick and Franco bids for silverware

rugby18 May 2023 06:43| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Franco Smith © Getty Images

Many star players who should feature in the Rugby World Cup will be taking centre stage in European finals weekend in Dublin, but it is the coaching personalities that are dominating the discourse in the buildup to the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup deciders.

Next week Cape Town will be the centre of attention as the DHL Stadium hosts the Vodacom United Rugby Championship final between the DHL Stormers and Munster, but this weekend all rugby roads are leading to Dublin, with the Challenge Cup showdown between Toulon and Glasgow Warriors being an appetising Friday night prelude to Saturday’s main event featuring Leinster against LaRochelle.

Former Springbok utility back Franco Smith hasn’t won anything yet but is already being offered the freedom of Glasgow for what he’s done to transform his team into such an attacking force. It has certainly been a rags to riches rise for Glasgow this season as under Smith they put behind them a disappointing 2021/2022 campaign that ended with a massive 76-14 URC quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Leinster.

Smith needs his team to win after their disappointing exit from the URC in the quarterfinal stage at home to Munster, who they had comprehensively outplayed in Limerick in the latter stages of league play.

However, it won’t be easy against a Toulon side that doesn’t just have the X-factor of Springbok World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe to call on out wide, but also the excellent playmaking abilities of Wales and British and Irish Lions flyhalf Dan Biggar orchestrating matters from the pivot position.


And then there’s LaRochelle coach Ronan O’Gara.

The former Ireland and Munster flyhalf was a talking point before last year’s Champions Cup final in Marseille against the same opponents because of his perceived antipathy for Leinster, which apparently is what you’d expect from someone who played for so long for their arch inter-pro rivals. There was also a bit of history between O’Gara and the then Leinster captain Jonny Sexton.

Veteran flyhalf Sexton isn’t playing this time because of injury, but that hasn’t blunted any focus on O’Gara and his determination to again get the better of Leinster. It has been speculated that O’Gara’s presence at the helm of LaRochelle might attract fans who’d normally be Munster supporters into coming to the stadium to support the French team.

‘ROGchelle’ was a trending topic last season as Munster fans threw their backing behind their legendary former spearhead. Whether that proves true in this year where Irish national pride has been raised so much by their outstanding Six Nations success going into a World Cup year will only become apparent on match day. But O’Gara does add to the narrative around a final that both teams are desperate to win for different reasons.

Leinster need to break a drought in the European competition that extends now back to 2018, plus they need to erase the bitter memory of their loss to LaRochelle last year.

“Post La Rochelle and Marseille was the worst dressing room I’ve experienced,” said Leinster and star Ireland loose-forward Caelan Doris this week.

“Even some of the senior guys, Leo (coach Leo Cullen), lots of guys have been saying the same. You could feel the silence and the hurt.”


There would have been more silence and hurt last weekend when Munster knocked Leinster out of the URC, but O’Gara is not being duped into thinking that will have any impact on his opponents on Saturday.

“Obviously, Leinster will be disappointed by that, but their focus has been on winning in Europe and they’ve made that their plan and that was the team they were going for,” said O’Gara.

“Last weekend there were 12 Leinster internationals in the stands for the game against Munster. Munster won, but it wasn’t against Leinster’s strongest side. It was like for us in Montpellier. It will be a completely different team.We’re expecting the best version of Leinster and the best version of them is a formidable task.”

Not that O’Gara is lacking in confidence as his team bids for their hattrick of titles, with Leinster having been their victims at the semifinal stage en route to their first European title the season before last.

“We talk all the time about stifling or stopping Leinster, but stopping La Rochelle is also a subject,” said the Irishman.

“This perception is also important. Our last defeat (in the Champions Cup) was almost two years ago. It’s important to get there and make it 50-50 to win the match. I’m not too interested in the opponent even if I respect him. I am focused on my team, on our path and what we are going to do on Saturday.”


The Warriors have a clutch of international players and so do Toulon so the Friday night game at the Aviva will be the perfect appetiser for what will follow the next day, when a Leinster team including so many Ireland stars but spearheaded by the likes of world class No 8 Caelan Doris, openside Josh van der Flier, an international midfield combination and wing James Lowe come up against a physical LaRochelle side spearheaded by the formidable figure of Australian international Will Skelton.

This game isn’t quite Ireland v France in the same way that the recent battle between Leinster and Toulouse was just because there are not so many French internationals in the LaRochelle team. The Champions Cup title holders have more of an international hue to their outfit, including two potent attacking weapons at the back in the form of Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule, both of whom have been capped by the Boks.


Heineken Champions Cup final

Leinster v LaRochelle (Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Saturday 17.45)

Both teams will arrive at the final well rested and off defeats in their league competitions because they were saving top players for this occasion. Leinster rested 12 internationals when they lost their URC semifinal to Munster last weekend, while LaRochelle coach Ronan O’Gara did the same for his team’s clash with Montpellier in the Top 14, with the same result. There’s a debate to be had about resting and whether it is overdone, certainly by Leinster, but what the respective policies of the two teams has done is delivered a final that will be competed by two fresh, fully fit and well prepared teams.

The big question from a Leinster viewpoint is whether they will be able to handle the physicality of the LaRochelle pack, something they struggled to do in last year’s decider. From the LaRochelle viewpoint there is the challenge of playing what many regard as the most organised team in rugby on a field in Ireland that they are well familiar with and in front of a crowd that should be mostly supporting the home team. As O’Gara says, that is something that will have to be managed.

It is almost inconceivable to think that Leinster, after dominating the league phase of the URC and showing such imperious form en route to this final, can go without a trophy again. So while many are making the French team favourites, my money says Leinster will eke out a close win that ensures that Ireland, who reigned over Europe at international level in the Six Nations, end the club/provincial season with at least one trophy.

Prediction: Leinster to win by less than 7

EPCR Challenge Cup final

Toulon v Glasgow Warriors (Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Friday 21.00)

After the disappointment of their defeat to Munster in the URC quarterfinal the ante has been upped for Glasgow, who would love to win a trophy to mark Franco Smith’s excellent first season in charge. This could be quite a game to watch if you look at who Toulon have got (Dan Biggar, Cheslin Kolbe among a smattering of star players known for their attacking rugby) and the running and passing/offload game that Glasgow have employed to dazzle opponents and spectators during the URC and the earlier rounds of this competition.

Toulon got to the final with an easy win over Benetton. Well easy in a sense - Toulon lost a player early in the game to a red card that was subsequently rescinded but not in time to prevent them from playing most of the game with 14 men. The Warriors struggled initially but ended as comfortable winners over Scarlets away in their semifinal.

Prediction: Toulon to win by 8