Champions Cup: Five takeaways as La Rochelle complete journey to the top with amazing win over Leinster

James While

Following a 24-21 victory for La Rochelle over Leinster in the Champions Cup final, here’s our five takeaways from the match at the Stade Velodrome.

Journey complete

La Rochelle became Champions of Europe in a game that promised much and delivered even more than it pledged as they overcame Leinster in the final minute of a bruising encounter that will go down as one of the finest finals in EPCR history.

The story of the club that’s only been in the Top 14 for eight years is complete as they delivered one of the most courageous and incredible displays of rugby both sides of the ball, outscoring Leinster by three tries to none, but crucially defending like tigers all afternoon. To watch a side of the quality of the Irishmen closed down so effectively was quite remarkable and Will Skelton, Dany Priso, Pierre Bourgarit and captain fantastic, Gregory Alldritt combined with Jonathan Danty in the centres to run a blitz and collision game that was absolutely breathtaking.

La Rochelle are a side that have done things the right way – their supporters are fanatical, they build from within, they have a side that can beat anyone in terms of physicality and tonight, their journey to the top is complete.

La ROG-chelle

At the centre of their win was the coaching mastermind of Ronan ‘ROG’ O’Gara. As a Munsterman, he needed no encouragement to go about the dismantling of his avowed rivals and his attention to detail, planning and selection were all absolutely spot on.

With the French team having a perceived power advantage but thought to be outgunned elsewhere, winning collisions in defence and attack were the key orders of the day and La Rochelle delivered time and time again most importantly retaining belief and enormous emotional intensity to the very last moments of the match.

La Rochelle targeted Leinster‘s ruck speed by throwing in extra men at collision – with Alldritt and Bourgarit regularly targeting the ball and carrier to reduce the normally lightning Irish ruck to a pedestrian pace. As a result, Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton found it impossible to ignite their backline and were forced to try running off nine, 10 and 12 with no space around the corner to release their fabulous backline gas.

Yes, La Rochelle made a lot of errors and the few moments either side of half time saw them vacillate from blood and thunder to flub and blunder as they turned themselves over on the Leinster line only to then repressure themselves at the other end. At the 64th minute, they almost shot themselves in the foot as Thomas Lavault tripped Gibson-Park to earn a yellow.

But La Rochelle were not done; Levani Botia and the whole La Rochelle impact front-row made a huge difference and five minutes of intense pressure on Leinster’s line finally saw Arthur Retiere scamper over for the tightest of winning tries.

Leinster pride

Leinster have nothing to be ashamed of. In going for their fifth star, the best they could manage was a four star performance and, on another day, fine margins may just have gone their way.

Some might say that La Rochelle may just have wanted it more, but that would denude a Leinster side that have delighted all that have seen them this season. They stuck it out manfully to the very end of the match, but the power differential and the scrum concessions simply mounted up to ridiculous pressure levels and eventually, they crumbled at the very final hurdle.

What does this mean for Leinster? It might suggest that they are at a marginal disadvantage against the very biggest of teams, and once again, their front-row struggled against some mightily powerful props. Andrew Porter’s move to loosehead has been less than a resounding success and he really struggled to prevent the enormous Uini Atonio from splitting him off his hooker time and time again.

But the biggest lesson Leinster will take with them is never stop being ‘Leinster’ – the side we’ve loved watching all season. At times, they got dragged into the close quarter energy sapping game and were drawn into the wrestle and power exchange that O’Gara so hoped would happen. Their glittering back-row were played off the park by Alldritt and his cohorts and there was a lack of thump in carry, a crucial point given the back foot game Sexton was forced to play in the face of the marauding Danty.

Make no mistake, they’ll be back and they’ll know what they need to do, but as they walk out as runners-up, all of rugby should thank them for the style and panache they’ve treated us to all season.

The stand-outs

Dillyn Leyds may well have got the Star of the Game award but in truth it could have gone to any of 10 or 12 La Rochelle players. From the brilliance and gas of Raymond Rhule to the power and commitment of Priso and sheer guts of Skelton, they never, ever gave up.

Both sets of La Rochelle front-rows were superior to anything that Leinster had and the pressure of this super six might just about be the unsung story of the final yet was a key component of the script, and at half-back Ihaia West and Thomas Berjon managed to get their side going forward in the face of a world class defence.

At the back, Brice Dulin may be out of favour with the national selectors, but in a game of the finest of margins, his siege gun left boot got his team so many important territorial positions, culminating in a 65 metre penalty to touch that many may overlook, but that was key in setting up the final drives for the line.

But the last word must be about Alldritt. This squat and powerful number eight has become the best player in his position in the world and has now shown himself to be an exceptional leader of men. For France’s superstar back-rower, this was the perfect end to a perfect season and nobody on the pitch deserved this win more than him. He is on the verge of greatness and France’s World Cup campaign next year might just cement that status.

EPCR excellence

The final word must go to European Professional Club Rugby. Cross border sport in a Covid and post-Covid era has become increasingly challenging and they delivered an incredible tournament, despite the many disruptions (notably before Christmas).

The Marseille double header in a state of the art stadium was an absolute masterstroke, ensuring huge support travelling to watch one or both matches. With fantastic officiating from start to finish, managed by the irrepressible Tony Spreadbury, they got very little (or absolutely nothing) wrong.

And best of all, they were rewarded with two teams that took a close match down to the final moment of the game, leaving fans falling of edges of seats, clinging on by well bitten fingernails right down to the wire.

It was a fitting way to end the most prestigious tournament in Europe.

READ MORE: Champions Cup: La Rochelle stun Leinster to claim European glory in Marseille