After a very competitive series of knockout rounds, the 2021/2022 European Rugby Champions Cup final had arrived, with Irish giants Leinster and last year’s runners-up Stade Rochelais (otherwise known as La Rochelle) going head-to-head in Marseille for the biggest prize in European club rugby.
Leinster were the pre-match favourites, given that they had won the title on four previous occasions and had deposed defending champions Toulouse in the semi-finals, whereas La Rochelle had never won a major trophy before. However, the French side have a strong squad and are growing every year, with Ronan O’Gara building a team capable of challenging for major honours each season, and those watching knew that they could not be underestimated.
Indeed, this tactical analysis will examine how O’Gara’s players managed to overcome Leinster and lift the trophy, focusing on problems that hindered their efforts and the awareness that helped to open up spaces and keep Leinster at bay for long periods of the game. The analysis will also look at Leinster’s performance, showing why there were good areas of their game but also why they ultimately fell short.
Leinster had named an entirely different side for their United Rugby Championship win at home to Munster last weekend, with head coach Leo Cullen opting to rest his key players for this game. Johnny Sexton once again captained from fly-half, with only one season to go before he retires from the sport, whilst flanker Josh van der Flier is having a season to remember at the moment and would be a key player in attack and defence. Leinster’s hopes of winning would also depend on the tournament’s top try-scorer, winger James Lowe, getting up the pitch and creating problems for La Rochelle, whilst Jimmy O’Brien has been catching glances this season and was a part of Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad for the Six Nations tournament earlier in the year.
La Rochelle opted for four changes to the starting XV deployed against Racing 92 in their semi-final, having also rested the majority of their players during last weekend’s Top 14 win against struggling Stade Francais. Two of those changes were the result of injuries, with scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow injuring his hand against Racing whilst flanker Victor Vito picked up an issue in last weekend’s match, so Thomas Berjon partnered Ihaia West at half-back and highly-rated flanker Matthias Haddad joined Wiaan Liebenberg and captain Gregory Alldritt in the back row. The other two alterations saw Jules Favre drop to the bench and France full-back Brice Dulin come in, with Dillyn Leyds moving to the wing, whilst former Saracens lock Will Skelton was given a start in the second row as Remy Picquette made way.
La Rochelle’s problems
When the dust is settled on this match, all that will matter is that La Rochelle won. However, the French side did have to negotiate some issues during the game, with individual errors meaning that they struggled to take some of their opportunities.
Their biggest problem in the early stages was discipline, with penalties being conceded for simple things like not releasing the tackled player and going offside, and this meant that Leinster were able to build a strong lead in the first minutes of the game. This image shows the fourth concession in the opening six and a half minutes, with fly-half Ihaia West legally tackling Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw, but centre Jonathan Danty simultaneously taking out fellow Ireland international Caelan Doris when the flanker didn’t have the ball, and it was things like this that prevented them from getting into the game sooner.
Whilst this did improve as the match went on, their problems became more to do with poor communication and not all being on the same page. In this case, they have seen the open space next to the wing and are looking to transfer the ball into that area, but West’s pass hits France tighthead Uini Atonio, who has moved out of line and got in the way, with the subsequent knock forward giving Leinster possession and allowing them to relieve the pressure that La Rochelle had been building.
Like the poor discipline, this was entirely avoidable and the fact that West was seen shaking his head in disbelief whilst walking backwards indicates how he knew that this was a big opportunity wasted.
La Rochelle’s awareness
However, whilst there were clear negatives in their overall gameplay, there was also a big positive in their overall awareness of where spaces were and where they could put pressure on Leinster, which was evident in the last section, and this formed a big part of their tactics and helped them to win the match.
The first key example of their awareness is demonstrated by the way that they used the spaces, with the creative ability of West enabling them to play the ball into areas behind Leinster’s defence and take advantage of their high line. Here, he has noticed how far up the field the Irish province have advanced and kicks the ball into the area behind them, with Brice Dulin running around the side of Ireland centre Garry Ringrose to meet it.
On this occasion, the ball didn’t bounce well for Dulin, but the intent was there and La Rochelle showed how they would look to exploit any space that Leinster left open, which helped to put a doubt in their minds and prevent them from getting on the front foot on too many occasions.
When in tighter areas of the field, La Rochelle were just as clever, knowing that they needed to continue getting the ball behind Leinster in order to keep their momentum going.
Here, the key fundamentals of their attacking play are shown clearly, with Dillyn Leyds taking advantage of quick passing to run into the gap between Jimmy O’Brien and Leinster tighthead Tadhg Furlong before it can be closed off. By releasing the ball behind the two players, Leyds allowed South African winger Raymond Rhule to control the ball between the main defensive line and full-back Hugo Keenan, giving La Rochelle a better chance of converting the opportunity.
As a result, Rhule has time to attack the space in front of him and evades the tackle attempt by Keenan to score the opening try of the game, but it is the little details in their play that have become so noticeable and have helped them to get to this stage of the competition, so it was not surprising to see them going back to what they do best and profiting from it.
The other thing that La Rochelle are known for is that they never give up, and they showed a desire in this game to keep pushing and fight for the win, which at times caught Leinster out. Here, Johnny Sexton has caught Dulin’s attempted drop kick on Leinster’s goal line, but Thomas Berjon has sprinted up the field to close the Ireland captain down, with Sexton’s reaction showing that this was not something that he expected.
As a result, his offload to Keenan was hurried and put the full-back in a difficult position, with La Rochelle getting numbers up the field to close off his options too. Once he had been tap-tackled by Wiaan Liebenberg, Will Skelton and hooker Pierre Bourgarit combined to win the penalty, with scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park sealing off the contest.
This was huge for La Rochelle at this moment in the game, as they had gone through a few unsuccessful phases of play and not come away with anything, and the fact that the lineout from this penalty resulted in a try for Bourgarit showed how, again, their desire to never give up was key in helping them overcome Leinster and arguably win against the odds.
Leinster’s mixed performance
Leinster will have felt that they had a good chance of winning this match, but ultimately fell short through a performance that had both positives and negatives to it. They will undoubtedly take the lessons from this match and work on the areas where they were not so good, and it is almost certain that they will be back in contention for the title next year.
It is important to note that the negative aspects of their performance weren’t all their own fault though, with this situation showing how they were at times unable to get on the front foot simply through La Rochelle controlling situations well. Here, Berjon has identified where Keenan is and kicked towards him, knowing that aiming the ball in the full-back’s direction would put him in a difficult position and make him an easy target for Rhule and Matthias Haddad, who combined to force him into touch once he had gathered the ball.
This shows how La Rochelle did well to manipulate the game and fight back after a slow start and Leinster shouldn’t focus too much on these areas in their post-match analysis.
What they do need to look at is their moments of inaccuracy, with individual errors making their play appear slow and laboured at times and prevent phases from being built with much urgency. Here, Gibson-Park has looked to pass the ball up the field, but it doesn’t find its intended target and bounces between Sexton and Furlong, forcing loosehead Andrew Porter to come between them and gather it under pressure, but the momentum had been lost at this stage and any gaps that had been previously available in La Rochelle’s line had been filled.
Therefore, when looking at where they could have executed things better and been more efficient with the ball, this was one area of the game that needs to come into consideration.
However, as mentioned, they also had a lot of positive moments which they can be pleased about, with the closing stages of the first half seeing them control large areas of the game and put a lot of pressure on La Rochelle. This came largely through them having more freedom to force mistakes to be made, with Dulin gathering O’Brien’s kick forward here but running back into his own try area, where he was always going to be a target for Leinster’s quicker players.
Leinster evidently sensed this opportunity, because they got numbers forward to try and punish the mistake, with O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and replacement hooker Dan Sheehan all getting up the pitch whilst Gibson-Park, in the red circle, ended up forcing the ball to ground and winning it back. It had not been that common for either side to have this many players in attack at the same time, so this shows how Leinster did well to break La Rochelle down, and what was clear was that they always posed a threat in this game, even when not at their best.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the 2021/2022 European Rugby Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle, finding the reasons why La Rochelle managed to come from behind and win a first major title in their history. The analysis has shown how the French side were guilty of a few poor errors during the game, but also used the spaces well and never gave up, which ultimately helped them over the line. The article has also demonstrated how Leinster had some good moments but ultimately fell short through their mixed performance.
A final point to consider when debating why La Rochelle managed to win the title in Marseille was that the Irish province didn’t score any tries in this match, whilst La Rochelle scored three, and it comes down to a key point about sport in general; make chances count. Leinster may have been able to build scoreboard pressure through continually kicking penalties, but La Rochelle had the chances in the opposing 22 which they took, and their ability to always find a way is why they are the new European champions.