Ahead of La Rochelle v Toulouse, here's a look at which battles will dictate the winner of Europe's biggest club competition
Four Key European Champions Cup Final 2021 Match-ups
The climax of the 2020-21 European Champions Cup season will see the first all-French final since Toulon beat Clermont Auvergne back in 2015.
It only takes four hours to drive from La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast, to Toulouse, adorning the banks of the Garonne – but both teams will decamp to Twickenham to meet in European rugby’s blue-riband event on Saturday afternoon.
Set to be a marquee clash, the two teams currently sit at the summit of the Top 14. Ugo Mola’s Toulouse make up the flesh of the national team, while La Rochelle, coached by Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara, are a side brimming with beauty and brutality.
Toulouse are bidding to win their fifth title, which would lift them above Leinster to become the most decorated team in European history, while La Rochelle are gunning for their first.
There are game-breakers littered all over the field, so here’s at look at a few of the battles that could be decisive.
Four Key European Champions Cup Final 2021 Match-ups
Antoine Dupont v Tawera Kerr-Barlow
Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont is the northern hemisphere’s outstanding player. Simply put, if he is allowed free reign, it is hard to conceive of a La Rochelle victory.
Always a brilliant running threat, Dupont’s support lines are generational, while his game management and kicking game are rapidly developing.
However, La Rochelle have their own weapon in the position – former All Blacks scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow, in his third season at the club. Out-half Ihaia West is more of a free-spirited ten, leaving Kerr-Barlow to hold the primary territorial responsibility.
His kicking is one area where his game might shade Dupont’s, while he also possesses the size to make a real nuisance of himself in defence. Watch for his tempo, too; he’s the tap through which the La Rochelle back-line flows.
Will Skelton v the Arnold brothers
In the semi-final against Leinster, 6ft 8in lock Will Skelton put in one of the great Champions Cup performances – metaphorically and literally head-and-shoulders above anyone else.
His impact on La Rochelle’s pack is sizable, providing scrummaging stability as well as hoovering up midfield carries – allowing slightly smaller No 8 Grégroy Alldritt to stay in his favoured wide channels.
James Ryan and Devin Toner couldn’t cope with him in the semi-final, which has been mooted as a possible reason why the former didn’t make the Lions 2021 touring party.
Tasked with stopping the human glacier are two fellow Australians – Richie and Rory Arnold, 30-year-old identical twins from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Even taller than Skelton at 6ft 10in apiece, they are touching 40st between them.
La Rochelle’s attack relies on front-foot ball – and the Arnold twins will be positioned over the sponsor’s logo in the centre of the field, soaking and slowing Skelton’s carries.
Toulouse’s semi-final against Bordeaux-Begles devolved into an arm-wrestle, in which the Arnold brothers’ ability to slowly turn opposition carriers into ground beef should prove incredibly useful.
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Raymond Rhule v Cheslin Kolbe
Levani Botia may well be La Rochelle’s most talented attacker, but their key weapon in the Champions Cup has been left-winger Raymond Rhule. He’s quick, strong and in possession of a dummy dirtier than the Gobi Desert. Just ask the Sale Sharks, who he tore apart in the quarter-final.
Up against him will be another Springbok – current all-galaxy winger Cheslin Kolbe. Toulouse rely on giving him the ball early and giving him time to work out a method of embarrassing the opposition winger, whereas La Rochelle prefer to wait until the defence is already warped before unleashing Rhule.
Kolbe is possibly even more talismanic for Toulouse than he is for South Africa. Often playing fly-half for them this season, he rotates with Romain Ntamack, Zack Holmes and Thomas Ramos to provide a first-receiver option – watch out for this at Twickenham.
Rhule holds a significant size advantage over his opposite number. While Kolbe’s tackling has never been a weakness, height can be key in the aerial battle – and Ihaia West does love a cross-kick…
Uini Atonio v Cyril Baille
Finals are usually won in the trenches – and the 2021 Champions Cup final will likely be no different. Toulouse loosehead Cyril Baille was one of France’s outstanding players in the Six Nations and has a ball-handling skill-set akin to Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler.
He decimated Lions call-up Zander Fagerson in France’s recent clash with Scotland, but Saturday will see him face an immovable object in the shape of Uini Atonio. The giant La Rochelle tighthead clocks in at 6ft 5½in and 24st – that’s the same weight as a fully-grown giant panda.
Most of the attention is on La Rochelle’s flowing back-line, but with Atonio backed up by Skelton the scrum is their first weapon.
La Rochelle v Toulouse, Twickenham, Saturday 22 May 2021, 4.45pm, Live on BT Sport 2.
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