14-man La Rochelle beaten 22-17 in the 2021 final at Twickenham
Toulouse win record fifth European Champions Cup
May sunshine interspersed with showers more synonymous with April. Two French teams playing at Twickenham with Irish fans belting out The Fields of Athenry in the stands.
There was much about this year’s European Champions Cup final that felt slightly out of kilter, but the match itself played out in a similar fashion to several of the all-French finals that have preceded it.
For all the explosive talent on the pitch, it was the forwards who dominated – Cheslin Kolbe didn’t touch the ball once in that first half! – as both teams favoured a more pragmatic approach.
And, as has happened so often before, it was Toulouse lifting the trophy once the final whistle had blown. This is a record fifth European title for the French team – they move clear of Leinster on four – and their first in more than a decade.
La Rochelle tried, unsuccessfully, to use the power of their scrum to get over the line when awarded a run of penalties midway through the opening period, and all first-half points came from the boot in the end.
It was Romain Ntamack and Ihaia West exchanging penalties, with the Kiwi giving first-time finalists La Rochelle a 12-9 lead going into the break.
That advantage was even more significant considering La Rochelle were reduced to 14 men before the half-hour mark when Levani Botia was sent off for a head-high tackle on Maxime Médard.
Kolbe got that long-awaited first touch in the 45th minute – and he came close to scoring with it.
Antoine Dupont broke down the middle of the pitch then kicked cross-field to Kolbe, but an incredible Geoffrey Doumayrou tackle took him into touch before he grounded the ball.
Instead, Toulouse had to settle for an Ntamack penalty that drew the scores level a few phases later – but they did get that try on the hour mark.
Ntamack found some space out wide with a long pass to Selevasio Tolofua, who then passed to Juan Cruz Mallía on the inside, and the centre weaved his way downfield for that opening try.
Momentum certainly swung towards Toulouse following that score. Dupont was breaking more often while another Ntamack penalty gave them a 22-12 lead going into the last ten minutes. Yet back came La Rochelle, the yellow wave still strong despite that numerical disadvantage.
From a penalty, they found touch just six metres from the Toulouse line. First came the maul, next a series of pick-and-goes and then Tawera Kerr-Barlow darted back towards the blindside and dove over for the try. West couldn’t add the extras but it made for a tense final five minutes.
The crowd matched the contest on the field with chants of ‘Tou-lous-e’ and ‘La Ro-chelle’ in the stands, enjoying the dramatic finish. As the noise levels raised – a brilliant sound after so many months of empty seats – surely so had the various coaches’ heart rates.
Toulouse didn’t make it easy on their coaches or their supporters either. Awarded a scrum with 47 seconds left on the clock, they knew if they kept possession from there that fifth title would be theirs. They secured the ball, kept it and then threw it to Ntamack to put into the stands – but the fly-half realised there were still five seconds left.
He was caught by La Rochelle ten metres from his line, but somehow those in red got the ball back and how fitting that it was Dupont who kicked the ball off the pitch to signal the final whistle.
Toulouse’s France scrum-half was named European Player of the Year post-match and, as captain, then went onto lift the trophy.
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