Everyone knows the bounce of a ball can have devastating results. This holds true for virtually every team sport but the oval shape and unpredictability of a rugby ball mean it rings particularly true in our game.
Despite this, it is still rare for the bounce of a ball to completely change the trajectory of a European Cup final and suddenly thrust a team that had been in control for an hour onto the back foot.
That is what happened to Leinster – twice – in the 59th minute on Saturday. It almost feels like lazy analysis to pinpoint this as where the game was won and lost but it’s difficult to argue otherwise.
It began with Wiaan Liebenberg winning a turnover penalty at the breakdown on La Rochelle’s 10-metre line. Almost inexplicably, scrum-half Berjon went quickly and Brice Dulin booted the ball towards the left hand corner in the next phase. He overcooked it and the ball looked sure to be going dead. Raymond Rhule chased down the lost cause, as he did all day, and Jimmy O’Brien had to try to shepherd the ball safely out of play with his opposite man breathing down his neck.
99 times out of 100, the ball would have bounced over the line but this time it hopped back infield and struck O’Brien’s knee before going out. Instead of a scrum on the halfway line, Leinster now had a goal line dropout.
Not the end of the world; they were eight points up after all. Sexton sent the ball 50 metres and Dulin decided to have a speculative effort at a drop goal upon receiving.
Again, the outcome looked harmless from Leinster’s point of view. The ball was well wide of the posts and again, 99 times out of 100, it would have bounced over the dead ball line. But it shot back infield, crossing the try line, forcing Sexton to gather it inside the field of play. Rather than touching the ball down and taking a 22-metre dropout, he had to try and exit but was chased down brilliantly by a tenacious Berjon who snagged him, forcing him to offload to Hugo Keenan.
Keenan did well but Gibson-Park went straight off his feet at the ensuing breakdown and conceded a penalty. La Rochelle kicked to the corner and scored immediately from a well-worked maul. Suddenly, La Rochelle’s tails were up and rather than working to stay within touching distance of their opponents, they and their tens of thousands of loyal and screaming supporters believed the game was theirs for the taking.
I have often mentioned fine margins and key moments when writing in these pages. There’s no finer margin than the centimetres of difference between safety and chaos that a ball bouncing the wrong way can bring. On Saturday, it’s fair to say those centimetres were the difference between the Champions Cup flying back to Ireland and staying in France.
Up to that point, Leinster had hardly put a foot wrong. As is often the case when two powerhouses meet in the latter stages of Europe, the approach is as much about neutralising your opponents’ threats as it is about getting points on the board yourself. Both teams had plenty to worry about and evidently, had prepared well for the challenge that lay ahead.
For Leinster, memories would have lingered of last year’s semi-final throughout their preparation for Saturday’s match. Simply put, La Rochelle were able to beat Leinster up a year ago, both at set piece and in general play. With roughly 300kg in the Uini Atonio/Will Skelton tighthead axis alone, they probably have the heaviest pack in world rugby and their game plan relies heavily on their big carriers making yards up front and sucking defenders in tight, leaving space outside.
While Skelton managed to make 41 metres with ball in hand – the highest of any forward on the pitch – Leinster dealt well with La Rochelle’s carrying threat. Aldritt, Priso and hooker Bourgarit in particular had impressive games with ball in hand but you never got the feeling that Leinster were under the pump in this facet of the game, as they routinely stopped the big lads dead in their tracks and dominated collisions.
Despite things looking ominous at scrum time after the men in blue were sent running backwards in the 14th minute, Leinster held their own here for most of the game, utilising quick ‘channel one’ strikes from the hooker to get the ball in and out on their own feed as quickly as possible. The departure of Furlong and Porter saw the Frenchmen regain the upper hand towards the end of the game but overall, Leinster managed to keep a handle on one of their opponents’ deadliest weapons.
From La Rochelle’s point of view, they needed to ensure they could deal with Leinster’s intensity and associated interplay between forwards and backs, in addition to handling an onslaught of pressure at the breakdown. The writing looked to be on the wall in the opening exchanges, with La Rochelle conceding four penalties in the opening ten minutes. As they had done to Toulouse two weeks earlier, Leinster appeared to running their big opponents ragged from the off.
O’Gara’s men showed their quality, however, by weathering this and other storms they found themselves in the middle of at various stages of the game. They remained composed, kept their heads, regrouped and trusted the plan. They had clearly done their homework in identifying how to disrupt Leinster’s ability to get the ball wide in general phase play, something they gave an exhibition in against Toulouse in the semi-final.
In that game, Leinster repeatedly targeted the seams between the fourth, fifth and sixth defenders, forcing them to gamble on what pass would be made and on many occasions, get it wrong. Such space was non-existent on Saturday as La Rochelle closed hard in unison any time a forward carried the ball at the line and looked to pull the back to a receiver behind the pod of three.
In addition to shutting down the space, La Rochelle systematically tried to send one of the wider defenders up out of the line in an effort to block out a long pass to the outside. This is generally frowned upon by defensive coaches; one of the golden rules of defence is preserving the integrity of the line and avoiding ‘dog leg’ scenarios where one defender shoots up too far and leaves space on his inside shoulder to be exploited.
If a side is well drilled and can identify when and when not to do it though, it can be an excellent tool to frustrate the attack and kill their momentum. While the absence of space and opportunity to move the ball led to fewer line breaks for Leinster than they would have liked, they still did virtually everything they needed to put themselves in a position to win. They played smart rugby, worked their way down the field and forced errors that allowed them to score seven times.
Ultimately, the fact that none of these seven scores involved crossing the white line is what cost them. The crucial statistic of the final was the number of tries: La Rochelle three – Leinster zero. A team will always do well to win a game when they are on the wrong side of a three-try deficit. Leinster spent plenty of time in and around the La Rochelle 22-metre line but the golden opportunities they are usually so clinical at taking just didn’t come their way.
Coming to terms with losing a final when you did practically everything right is a tough pill to swallow. It’s easier if you can point to certain moments or certain aspects of the game that just didn’t fire properly on the day. But when it’s literally the bounce of a ball that stops you from winning a fifth European Cup, it’s about as sickening a reason as there can be.