Ronan O’Gara’s side lift the trophy for the first time after a dramatic 24-21 victory over Leinster
La Rochelle win European Champions Cup
“We’re only a small town, we’re not supposed to be here.” So said Will Skelton after La Rochelle won the European Champions Cup, but there was nothing small about their dramatic 24-21 victory over four-times winners Leinster; it was big and bold.
Giant lock Skelton was to the forefront of La Rochelle’s performance but it was the way the entire team suffocated Leinster’s attack that proved decisive. They piled on the pressure up front and their ferocious defence prevented the Irish side from demonstrating the fluidity with ball in hand that we had seen in the build-up to this final.
Leinster have been a try-scoring force in Europe this season and were clear favourites going into the game, but they couldn’t get across the whitewash once in Marseille. In contrast, La Rochelle scored three tries.
“I knew defensively with the way we set up we wouldn’t really let them play,” Ronan O’Gara told BT Sport afterwards. “This is the start of something special.”
It is quite a rise for a side that were in the French second division eight years ago and have only been playing in the top tier of Europe for four years, but they do have a man at the helm who knows exactly what is required to be crowned European champions.
O’Gara guided Munster to two European Cups from fly-half and now he has guided La Rochelle to their first-ever European title from the coaches’ box. His influence has seen some nickname the side La ROGhelle!
The grit, determination and composure O’Gara was so known for as a player were evident in his team’s display in the final ten minutes as they built towards scoring the match-winning try. Here’s how the final played out…
La Rochelle win European Champions Cup
La Rochelle scored the opening try of the game in the tenth minute when Dillyn Leyds released Raymond Rhule with a deft offload. Rhule cut inside past Jimmy O’Brien and Hugo Keenan to score.
The pair combined again around the half-hour mark to burst into the Leinster 22, only for a neck roll at a subsequent breakdown to provide Leinster with the opportunity to clear. And that somewhat summed up the state of play in the first half.
The French side, buoyed by their vocal fans in Marseille, looked to have an edge at the scrum – bar one five metres from the opposition line in the closing minutes of the opening period when Leinster were awarded a penalty – and had more opportunities in attack.
Their defence also closed down Leinster quickly, limiting the Irish province’s ability to spread the ball wide, but their ill-discipline allowed Johnny Sexton to put his side 12-7 in front at the break through his boot.
It was penalties that dominated the third quarter, too, with two from Sexton and one from Ihaia West making it 18-10 approaching the hour mark. Then came La Rochelle’s second try.
It all started with a Leinster goal-line dropout, which was followed by a Brice Dulin drop-goal attempt. That went wide but a penalty at an ensuing breakdown gave La Rochelle the opportunity to set up a five-metre lineout. Their maul kicked into gear, Pierre Bourgarit grounded the ball, West converted and it was a one-point game.
Momentum appeared to be swinging in La Rochelle’s favour only for Thomas Lavault to trip Jamison Gibson-Park as he was chasing a kick. Out came Wayne Barnes’s yellow card and over went Ross Byrne’s penalty kick.
Yet La Rochelle set up camp in Leinster’s 22 for the final ten minutes, launching their huge forwards on short carries from lineouts and scrums as the Irish side conceded a succession of penalties.
In the end it was replacement scrum-half Arthur Retiere who stretched out to score the winning try in the 79th minute and West’s conversion was the final act of the match.
There is a new name on the European Cup but there is a familiar name behind the triumph.
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