Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle snatched European glory out of Leinster’s grasp at Stade Velodrome, as a 79th-minute try by Arthur Retiere added glittering substance to French rugby’s new golden age.
The replacement scrum-half struck after a savage blitz by Ronan O’Gara’s team in the closing stages of this tight, tense Heineken Champions Cup Final. Leinster were within touching distance of joining Toulouse as five-star kings of the continent, but their dream was shattered in dramatic fashion.
In truth, it would have been an injustice if La Rochelle had not won this. They were dominant in most areas for most of the game. If it hadn’t been for the harsh penalty-count against them and some wild lapses in decision-making and execution, they surely would have been out of sight.
The players from La Rochelle celebrate as Arthur Retiere gets over the ball over the line
What a triumph for a club who only won promotion to the Top 14 league in 2014. Their rise has been remarkable and they brought an enormous following down to the Mediterranean to witness their finest hour. Their defensive resilience and sheer power made the clear favorites look ordinary and few rivals have managed that.
La Rochelle lost last year’s final 22-17 to Toulouse and it looked like there would be a similar fate this time, until Retiere conjured the late twist. It was due reward for stand-out performers here such as earlier try-scorers Raymond Rhule and Pierre Bourgarit, and the massive Wallaby lock, Will Skelton, whose relentless influence was astounding given his recent lack of game-time.
What a triumph this is too for O’Gara, the former Ireland No 10 who had the last laugh over so many familiar foes – and became only the third person to win the European Cup as a player and as head coach. He has spoken of his interest in succeeding Eddie Jones – who was in attendance here – as England and on the evidence of this feat, the RFU should have him firmly on their radar.
‘You’ve got to be proud of how we defended,’ said O’Gara, speaking to BT Sport. ‘Leinster always scores. There was a great heart at 18-10 because we could have rolled over. I think this is the start of something special here.
‘It’s massive. It feels surreal. We will wake up tomorrow morning as European champions – La Rochelle. There will be carnage on the port for the next four days! ‘
Retiere scored the match-winning try to earn La Rochelle their first ever major trophy
Raymond Rhule avoiding a tackle before scoring the first try of the afternoon for La Rochelle
Skelton added: ‘We’re only a small town. We’re not supposed to be here playing in these big games. It hurts a lot last year but sometimes you have to lose some to win one. ‘
La Rochelle will now return to league mode, in pursuit of a Double. They will do so having struck another blow for the buoyant French game, two months after the national team’s Grand Slam. Lyon won the Challenge Cup and now La Rochelle have claimed the top prize. Last year, it was Toulouse and Montpellier who took those titles. The balance of power lies emphatically on this side of the Channel.
Leinster opened the scoring, with the first of Johnny Sexton’s four first-half penalties coming in the fifth minute. English referee Wayne Barnes continued to come down hard on the French finalists, which undermined their periods of possession and thunderous pressure.
Nevertheless, they were able to carve open Leinster’s renowned defense to score a try in the 10th minute. La Rochelle were attacking with advantage on the left and Dillyn Leyds managed to free his arms in a tackle and off-load to fellow wing Rhule, who cut inside and scorched clear to score.
Ihaia West converted to put his side ahead, but that was to be their last points before the break. La Rochelle kept infringing – in the eyes of Barnes – and making endless mistakes. They were left with nothing to show for a prolonged siege in the Leinster 22 shortly before half-time.
There was a certain inevitability that when the Irish side broke out, they would make it count and they duly did. After Brice Dulin dithered and was ambushed in his own in-goal area, Leo Cullen’s team won another penalty and Sexton knocked it over to send them in 12-7 up at half-time. Given the run of play, that was a staggering score-line.
Johnny Sexton scored 18 points with his conversations against La Rochelle on Saturday
La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara has spoken of his interest in succeeding Eddie Jones
Two minutes after the break, there was a slight re-dress as Barnes awarded La Rochelle a penalty in the range of the posts and West dispatched it to narrow the deficit to just two points. But it didn’t take long for normal service to resume, with Barnes’ whistle again the soundtrack of French suffering; gifting Sexton two easy shots in quick succession, to make it 18-10.
But La Rochelle rallied with gusto – refusing to accept that the writing was already on the wall. Just after the hour, a penalty was kicked to the left corner, Matthias Haddad won the lineout and the pack drove over, for the outstanding hooker, Bourgarit, to score. West’s conversion made it 18-17.
With fifteen minutes to go, La Rochelle were reduced to 14 men as Thomas Lavault was sin-binned for a sly trip on Jamison Gibson-Park. Leinster took the three points – kicked by Ross Byrne, who had replaced the bashed-up Sexton moments earlier.
That gave them a four-point cushion and they so nearly held on to it. Nearly, but not quite. Europe has new conquerors and France has another champion team.
La Rochelle will now look to win their league and complete a historic double title season