La Rochelle subdue Leinster to set up all-French Champions Cup final
Beneath a clear blue sky on the Atlantic coast there was no mistaking the shimmering new force in the European club game. Leinster had been hoping to add a fifth gold star to their jerseys but the four-times champions were instead comprehensively crushed by a La Rochelle team now awaiting an all-French finale against Toulouse at Twickenham on 22 May.
It was a triumph not just of power, with the giant Will Skelton’s 74th-minute try crowning a shuddering personal display, but of perceptive management. Few know more about Leinster’s capabilities than their former coach Jonno Gibbes and longtime adversary Ronan O’Gara, La Rochelle’s director of rugby and head coach, and, after a wobbly start, the Top 14 side’s precision and strength at the breakdown, allied to their territorial superiority, increasingly left the visitors nowhere to go.
The beauty of La Rochelle is they can play it almost any way: fast or slow, wide or tight. On this occasion it was all about squeezing the proverbial out of Leinster, who missed their injured half-back generals, and calmly taking advantage, with the fly-half Ihaia West contributing 22 points.
Back in a previous life with Munster O’Gara endured a grim day at Twickenham in a European final, a forgettable day with the boot helping Northampton to lift the Heineken Cup in 2000. Now here he is, just 80 minutes away from joining the elite club to have tasted European glory as both a coach and a player.
If La Rochelle play with the conviction and control they showed in the second-half, Toulouse’s prospects of securing a fifth European title will end up as battered and twisted as Leinster’s lofty ambitions. To see Skelton, looking even more formidable than in his Saracens day, bashing past a clutch of blue shirts to seal the deal and Grégory Alldritt reproducing the compelling form that makes him one of France’s most influential forwards is to suspect the first major trophy in La Rochelle’s 123-year history is not far away now.
It had been a very different story initially, Leinster dominating possession and quickly going seven points up via a close-range score from Tadhg Furlong, converted by Ross Byrne. The fly-half, deputising for the injured Johnny Sexton, had missed his opening penalty attempt but two subsequent successful kicks put Leinster 13-6 up inside the first half-hour.
In addition to causing problems at the breakdown, Leinster were also enjoying recurring success whenever they aimed a restart up into the dazzling sun in the direction of Dillyn Leyds. The South African wing was so blinded by the light he struggled at times even to lay a hand on the ball but, elsewhere, La Rochelle began to establish more of a grip.
Gradually the penalty count started to even up and the loss of Rhys Ruddock with a calf strain forced a reshuffle of Leinster’s back row. The visitors scrambled well to prevent a try being scored following a lovely chip kick from West to his fellow Kiwi Victor Vito but the interval scoreline of 13-12 reflected the heavy-duty nature of the contest.
Leinster had won the previous 26 European games in which they had led at half-time but there were no soft guarantees on offer here. Within six minutes of the restart West was putting La Rochelle in front for the first time and, despite another three points from Byrne, the departure of James Lowe to the sin-bin for slowing down ruck ball with his feet further encouraged the hosts.
West duly chipped his side back ahead and it required a fine smother tackle by Josh van der Flier to prevent Tawera Kerr-Barlow from extending the lead. It was to prove only a temporary reprieve, Aldritt driving over with the considerable help of the supporting Skelton to turn the screw further.
Leinster, such accomplished frontrunners, had to find something miraculous. By this point, though, La Rochelle’s confidence was visibly soaring, their energetic hooker Pierre Bourgarit and Leyds snaffling key ruck turnovers to maintain their side’s territorial dominance.
If anyone needed any further proof that O’Gara and Gibbes have moulded a serious unit it came with Skelton’s monumental late surge, with Byrne’s converted late try proving academic.
Leicester have qualified for the Challenge Cup final against Montpellier but otherwise this has been a decidedly French-flavoured club season.