La Rochelle take Lienster down another peg
By LIAM DEL CARME
Arena Holdings PTY
Leinster (23) 26 La Rochelle (14) 27 Leinster - Tries: Dan Sheehan (2), Jimmy O'Brien; Conversion: Ross Byrne; Penalties: Byrne (3). La Rochelle (27) - Tries: Jonathan Danty, Ulupano Seuteni, Georges Henri Colombe; Conversions: Antoine Hastoy (3); Penalties: Hastoy (2). ● With the wind firmly in their sails La Rochelle made a comeback for the ages when they beat Leinster 27-26 to claim back-to-back Champions Cup titles yesterday. They showed all their champion qualities coming back from a 17-point deficit in Dublin to condemn Ireland’s blue ribband team to more misery in a tense and thoroughly absorbing final. The win was a personal triumph for inspirational coach Ronan O’Gara who has now won Europe’s top prize twice as a player and a coach. The defeat will be particularly painful for Leinster who for the second year running bowed out in the semifinals of the United Rugby Championship, before crashing at the final hurdle in the dash for European rugby’s most sought after prize. “No-one thought we could win in Dublin. We believed and we showed trust in the strategy,” said talismanic La Rochelle No 8 Grégory Alldritt who won the man of the match and the European player of the year awards. It was a frantic and physical final of small margins. Though they shipped 17 points in the first 12 minutes of the game, it was La Rochelle who put the doldrums behind them as they sailed to the title with a powerful second-half display. Leinster was hoping not just to atone for last weekend’s URC semifinal exit but to avenge their defeat to La Rochelle in last year’s Champions Cup final in Marseille. They again missed the opportunity to go level with Toulouse who have a record five titles. It was a match of many twists and turns. After La Rochelle’s blockbusting centre Jonathan Danty was yellow-carded in the 74th minute Leinster, after spending almost the entire second half on the backfoot, suddenly got a foothold. They laid siege to the La Rochelle tryline but in a dramatic twist replacement prop Michael Ala’alatoa was red-carded for a dangerous clean out at the ruck. La Rochelle kicked for touch and ran for the hills. At the start though, Leinster were sharper and more assertive and those virtues were at play right from the outset as No 8 Jack Conin scored after only 41 seconds after they caught La Rochelle with their pants down. The Dublin crowd was whipped into a frenzy and to compound matters for the French scrumhalf, Tawera Kerr-Barlow was yellow-carded in the eighth minute. From the ensuing penalty opposite number Jamison Gibson-Park’s keen appreciation of space found Dan Sheehan on the periphery with a long pass. It took a while for La Rochelle with a combined weight of 926kg in their pack to make that count. Their power game came to the fore as halftime loomed with France No 8 Alldritt leading the way. Not far behind man mountain tight-head prop Uini Atonio and fellow behemoth Will Skelton bashed hard at the Leinster defence. Flank Levani Botia and Danty tested the Leinster defence and their resolve on the deck. Leinster’s ability to steal La Rochelle’s ball in the third quarter proved crucial as La Rochelle kept deploying their heavy hitters. By the 65th minute they had made 159 tackles. Ultimately though, La Rochelle prevailed. They will lead wild celebrations in their port city on Sunday, returning again as conquerors of Europe.