Beneath the beautiful curved roof of this spectacular stadium, the question was whether Leinster could graduate as the modern masters of the European game. For some time they have been on a mission to secure a record-equaling fifth Champions Cup title and for nearly 79 minutes the stage looked set to complete their grand design.
Then, just at the last moment, everything turned to rubble. After what seemed like several years of concerted forward pressure from La Rochelle, the ball found its way into the hands of their reserve scrum-half, Arthur Retière, one of the smaller men on the pitch. The 24-year-old stumbled at first, but regained his footing and stretched long enough to touch the line and deliver the latest European title to the Atlantic Coast for the first time.
it was coming Time and time again, La Rochelle had driven towards Leinster’s thin blue defensive line, roaring for the thousands of black and yellow clad fans behind the posts.
Despite six penalties from Ireland’s chief architect Johnny Sexton, the shot count said it all. Three to nil for the team coached by Ronan O’Gara, the undisputed Irish winner of the day.
It was an overall nightmare for Sexton, a rare misjudgment on their own line had given La Rochelle the position from which a close range attempt by their hooker, Pierre Bourgarit, had dragged them back into a dogfight. in the last quarter.
It was a crucial moment, despite a 64th-minute yellow card for La Rochelle lock Thomas Lavault for a silly trip over Jamison Gibson-Park.
What a triumph this was for O’Gara, only the second person after Leinster’s Leo Cullen to win the title as player and head coach.
Without their two influential but injured New Zealanders, Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, the absolute minimum starting requirement for La Rochelle was a decent start, to absorb the initial Blue attack and slow the game down to a pace that best suited their needs. big, heavy forwards.
Outside the gate, however, it was all Leinster. They conducted their first lineout, as if to underscore their determination not to be outdone in any way, and two penalties from Sexton made his early superiority count. The pinball magic of his distribution, which is such an important feature of his game when things click with the ball in hand, was already in evidence.
It was to La Rochelle’s credit that they hit back hard and impressively. His South African winger, Raymond Rhule, is a fast and strong unit, and when he cut inside after breaking down the left, the generally reliable Hugo Keenan was beaten by pure dynamic pace from him. Ihaia West has had his shaky moments kicking goals, but his conversion form was a peach.
Leinster responded by making a hooker change after 15 minutes, eliminating Irish international Ronan Kelleher. There was some initial talk about tactical reasons, but he seemed to be holding his arm as he walked out. Sheehan is a very promising player, but La Rochelle’s tight scrummagers didn’t seem entirely disheartened.
A much more cautious game duly broke out. Obstruction in midfield allowed Sexton to regain the lead with his third penalty, but rudimentary play is not Leinster’s preferred setting. La Rochelle enjoyed more possession and sent a fleet of HGV trucks thundering down the middle.
Rhule, no longer the fleeting exception, was suddenly everywhere. From a neutral perspective, it was a good thing: the organizers needed a proper contest rather than an Irish procession, with next year’s final scheduled for Dublin. Now they had one, with roars of “Allez, Allez!” from the stands and the Leinster scrum under sustained siege near their own line.
Often it was touch and go. With La Rochelle on the attack, referee Wayne Barnes was told that Dany Priso on the loose head side was a bit too ‘long’ in terms of foot placement and guilty of collapsing the all-important scrum. Priso was horrified but Barnes stood his ground. On the other side was Leinster, duly secured another offside penalty in front of the sticks and – hey, voila! – trotted into the lead interval 12-7.
Not surprisingly, Bourgarit and his captain, Grégory Aldritt, could be seen engaging in serious conversation with Barnes as they headed down the tunnel. Barnes has made commendable efforts to improve his French but, regardless of the language used, the difference in cross-border perceptions in professional sport in general, and rugby in particular, remains huge.
However, in the back of the Irish minds was last year’s semi-final when, having narrowly led at half-time, Leinster ended up being physically demolished and lost 32-23.
When a West penalty cut the margin to two points two minutes into the second half, the air of tension increased a little more.
Even after Sexton’s sixth penalty, La Rochelle kept going, with only the final pass refusing to stick. But then came Sexton’s misjudgment, Bourgarit’s thunderous score and West’s nerveless second conversion, setting up a dizzying finale worthy of the stage.
Has it been a classic European Champions Cup season? Maybe not, with the curse of Covid stunting its early stages. But the final was well organized and the heart of the tournament remains strong. Although, seeing these two formidable teams crush each other, it could be a while before an English team lifts the trophy.