Coming force La Rochelle face down Toulouse again with Top 14 title on the line

Ronan O’Gara and Jono Gibbes looking to make up for Champions Cup defeat

 

Top 14 final: Toulouse v La Rochelle, Stade de France, Friday, 7.45pm Irish time – Live on Premier Sports 1

Ronan O’Gara and Jono Gibbes have taken La Rochelle to their first ever French Championship final but standing between them and a cherished Bouclier de Brennus are the ultimate serial winners from Toulouse.

The Rouge et Noir are, by contrast, French and European royalty, as La Rochelle know only too well given this is a reprise of the Heineken Champions Cup final a month ago at Twickenham when Toulouse became the first club to claim a fifth star.

They are even further out in front domestically, for in regaining the Bouclier in the 2019-20 season they won the trophy for the 20th time in total. As last season was abandoned, technically therefore Toulouse are the reigning French champions as well as European champions.

But La Rochelle are the coming force, so much so that this reprise of the European final has been dubbed the new clasico of French club rugby.

The scars of that Twickenham cut deep with O’Gara and La Rochelle, not least in the suspension for Fijian centre Levani Botia following his red card which ruled him out for the rest of the season. But they coped without him and influential hooker Pierre Bourgarit to convincingly strangle Racing last week.

La Rochelle have been boosted by the return of influential centre Geoffrey Doumayrou, who was ruled out of the semi-final, and the ripple effect means that Darren Sweetnam, an unused replacement last week, misses out on the ‘23’.

By contrast, Toulouse have lost Romain Ntamack, whose goal-kicking was critical to their win in Twickenham, after he was taken off with concussion in their semi-final win over Bordeaux last Saturday. Ugo Mola has opted to move Thomas Ramos from fullback to outhalf, with Cheslin Kolbe switching to ‘15’ from the wing, and bringing in Juan Cruz Mallía, try scorer in the final.

Richie Arnold is also back in the secondrow, as are Dorian Aldegheri and Joe Tekori on the bench, as they seek to give Jerome Kaino the perfect finale.

Toulouse have won seven of the last eight meetings, also including the semi-final two seasons ago when Ramos was at outhalf. But Ntamack has to be considered a loss and Toulouse, with a day’s less rest, looked tired last week.

The Parisian night time curfew has been lifted and 14,000 will be in attendance. La Rochelle will be both vengeful and acutely well primed to take their chances this time and not let Toulouse off the hook if their power game has the same whiff of their opponents’ line as they had at Twickenham.

TOULOUSE: Cheslin Kolbe; Juan Cruz Mallía, Santiago Chocobares, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Thomas Ramos, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Charlie Faumuina; Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold; Rynhardt Elstadt, Francois Cros, Selevasio Tolofua.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Rodrigue Neti, Joe Tekori, Thibaud Flament, Jerome Kaino, Alexi Balès, Maxime Médard, Dorian Aldegheri.

LA ROCHELLE: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Arthur Retière; Ihaia West, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Reda Wardi, Facunda Bosch, Uini Atonio; Romain Sazy (capt), Will Skelton; Wiann Liebenberg, Kevin Gourdon, Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Samuel Lagrange, Dany Priso, Thomas Lavault, Victor Vito, Jule Le Bail, Jules Plisson, Jules Favre, Arthur Joly.

Referee: Matthieu Reynal.

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