Venue – Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Date: Saturday, May 20
Leinster has put all its eggs in this basket, having won this competition just once since the 2011-12 season. This is a repeat of last year’s final, one that La Rochelle won by a narrow margin as they took down Leinster 24-21 at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. This time, it is essentially a home game for Leinster, so expect the Aviva Stadium in Dublin to be rocking as they try to claim the only trophy they can now win this season.
The Irish giants are down to just one trophy to chase because they lost to Munster in the URC semi-finals last weekend. It was a weird game, with Leinster showing their great rival absolutely no respect with a team selection made up of a number of second-choice players. The Irish side has always been huge on squad rotation, but with just three big games left in the season (at that point), surely the right move would have been to play their biggest names?
La Rochelle is in wild form. They lost to Montpellier last time out, but that was their first defeat in months, as they had won ten on the bounce. That form has taken them to second place in the Top 14, just two points behind leaders Toulouse, with one game left to play before the playoffs begin. This dangerous team is as full of stars as any in the sport.
Ignoring the game against Munster, there are just two changes from the Leinster team that was dominant against Toulouse in the semi-final of this comp. They arr also both changes that bring Leinster closer to full strength, with James Lowe on the wing and Robbie Henshaw in the center. While missing Johnny Sexton is still a big deal, the pack that Leinster will run out is all internationals, and the likes of James Ryan and Josh van der Flier will be looking to make their mark around the breakdown and with their physical defense.
La Rochelle isn’t in this final by mistake. Tawera Kerr-Barlow is a lightning rod of a scrum-half, while Will Skelton at lock seems to win this competition no matter who he is playing with. Their back row has stars in Levani Botia and Gregory Aldrritt, while South Africans Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds on the wings are outstanding finishers when given space in which to work.
Leinster simply has to win this. La Rochelle still has the Top 14 to play for, but for Leinster, this is everything. The ‘home advantage’ counts for a ton. Leinster knows the Aviva inside out. They have played countless games here over the last few years, and the crowd split is going to be monumentally in their favor. They also have this as a revenge game after losing in the final last season, so I expect them to get the job done this time and win by more than a try, with their clinical attacking play seeing them through.