Joe McCarthy of Leinster in action against La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. [Inpho/Billy Stickland]

Leinster take revenge against O'Gara, champs La Rochelle

Leinster 40; La Rochelle 13

Oh you gods of sport, what fun and games you play with those who dare to make bold predictions!

Champions La Rochelle  were everybody’s quiet fancy as they sought  to  defeat Leinster on their way to a third successive  final appearance. Instead of being the masters of all they surveyed, they became the whipping boys for a home outfit thirsting not just for revenge but to serve it up piping hot in front of a packed house at the Aviva Stadium and a vast television audience.

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This just wasn’t a win - it was a walloping as Leo Cullen’s men played for 80 minutes with pride and passion and left no room for the Ronan O’Gara-coached French side to stage comebacks such as they conjured up when 17-0 down in last year's final and similarly when 16 behind in South Africa the previous week before advancing to this stage on Saturday evening in Dublin.

This was the fourth successive year the two sides had met in the knockout stages of this competition with the French outfit having come out tops in all three previous occasions which included two finals.

And with La Rochelle in Cork for a week of preparation, the Munster factor also came into play as they sought to shut out the eastern province again.

However such preparation close to their own backyard also had its own effect on the winners who came out to meet the continental juggernaut with even greater force and succeeded to the extent that they won the collisions across the 80 minutes - something that could be evidence in the final tally of their five try-line crossings to La Rochelle’s single try on the cusp of half-time.

Even then when knowledgeable sages nodded at how important that score could be in the context of a team renowned for coming from way back to claim victory, Leinster produced their own emphatic answer by keeping the visitors to Dublin scoreline for the entire second half.

The reward of victory will be immense as the Aviva Stadium is now unavailable to rugby because of preparations for the Europa League soccer final. It means that Leinster will get to play their semi-final against Northampton Saints at Croke Park which has almost a double capacity of  82,000 and of course it is an iconic stage for every Irish sportsman, not just GAA followers.

Unlike the previous times when Leinster flattered to deceive, on this occasion the winners had leaders all over the park with wing James Lowe (2),  brilliant scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, marauding flanker Ryan Baird and inevitably hooker Dan Sheehan all scoring crucial tries. Arguably as important was the way fly-half Ross Byrne bossed the show and became the game’s MVP as he slotted over three three penalties to go with his three conversions.The one bright spark for the visitors which gave them hope was when giant prop Louis Penverne got down for a try on half-time, with Antoine Hastoy adding two penalties and a conversion to leave it 23-13 at the break. That left them back in the game on the scoreboard but thereafter they were blown away.

La Rochelle scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow had to be carried off following the move which saw Baird burst over for the game’s defining score shortly after the break and after that both sides knew there would only be one outcome.

La Rochelle  Head Coach O'Gara was gracious in defeat. "Being 10 points down at half time was fantastic, we were obviously very happy with that. After the first try, a soft try four minutes into the second half, I think it was the turning point. Seventeen points against a quality outfit is too much, with 36 minutes left.

"Fair play to Leinster, it’s been an unbelievable battle over the last number of years and I hope we can get back to a level where we can compete with them," he stressed.

The former Munster and Ireland outhalf also had a warning for Leinster. “There will always be a challenge I think for whoever came out of this game because, all of a sudden now, they’ll be hot favorites but the air gets thinner as you go semi-final and final.

“Toulouse are quality. Leinster have always had their measure in this competition but the way they play the game will pose challenges. I see Harlequins had a big win as well. For me, it’s two teams with massive tradition left, so it’s not a final for Leinster today, I wouldn’t think. There’s still 160 minutes of rugby for them. We would have liked to have had that.”

Leinster Head Coach Cullen was beside himself in the elation of victory. "It was just making sure we put in a good performance, because it was a big occasion. We’re pleased, I thought the occasion was fantastic. We’ve a couple of outings away in South Africa in between which my mind is turning to, so we have a couple of moving parts this week.

"For now, we’ll enjoy the occasion, the moment, and will make a plan for our South African trip on Tuesday."

"It's a great feeling," No 8 Caelan Doris said on television afterwards. "We have massive respect for them as a group of players and a team. We've had some immense battles against them over the last number of years and it is very pleasing to finally put in a performance like that and get a result like that. I think it was a great defensive display.

"You saw some of the shots that went in on some of their key ball-carriers, who have given good go-forward for them over the last couple of years, so it went a long way towards that performance. Jamison is unbelievable. He is a joy to play with.

"He keeps the tempo so high and he is so unpredictable but plays within our plan at the same time. The boys are all about running lines off him. It is a very rare opportunity to play at Croke Park in front of our own fans. What an exciting prospect, and we are looking forward to it massively,"  he added.