Agony for 14-man La Rochelle as five star Toulouse conquer Europe again
Ronan O’Gara’s side fall short as winners return to the top of the continental table
Toulouse celebrate their Champions Cup final win. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/Getty/AFP
La Rochelle 17 Toulouse 22
Toulouse are the supreme power of European rugby after becoming the first club to win a fifth Champions Cup, but despite playing for more than 50 minutes with 14 men La Rochelle made them sweat until the very last second.
Like the previous six all-French affairs this was not a vintage affair and in truth Toulouse played altogether more memorable rugby when losing the 2004 final at Twickenham when Rob Howley pounced on a late mistake by Clement Poitrenaud.
This win will be all the sweeter for Poitrenaud, now part of the Toulouse coaching ticket, as Romain Ntamack emulated his father Emile a quarter of a century ago.
Not unexpectedly, his goalkicking was key as he landed six from six for a 17 point haul whereas Ihaia West missed three of his seven shots at goal. Ntamack was also the architect in chief of the game’s decisive try on the hour by the Argentina centre Juan Cruz Mallía but in truth the gifted French outhalf had performed erratically, failing to exploit the space resulting from Levani Boktia’s 28th minute red card for a dangerously high hit on Maxime Medard, the one survivor from Toulouse’s fourth title in 2010 when beating Biarritz.
Despite Botia’s sending off, La Rochelle had much the better of the first-half but their 12-9 interval lead was scant reward for their supremacy up front, their dominance in the collisions and 66 per cent territory, failing to translate three successive five metre scrums into points.
The numerical disadvantage eventually took a critical toll, although even then La Rochelle, seeking their first trophy, were still putting Toulouse through the ringer until the final play.
Toulouse were quicker out of the blocks, Man of the Match Francois Cros making the game’s first clean break before Jerome Kaino atoned for a knock-on with a brilliant clean steal in the jackal which led to Tawera Kerr-Barlow being offside and Ntamack landed a fine 45 metre penalty.
West and Ntamack traded further penalties as Toulouse also lost Richie Arnold, replaced by Joe Tekori.
Cue a rendition of the ubiquitous ‘Fields of Athenry’.
La Rochelle’s pack had already flexed their pecs at maul time, and did so again at scrum time. West’s penalty hit the upright but Mallía, who had played just a minute in the competition before this final, fumbled and this led to the first of three five metre scrums.
Dupont showed the other side to his game when manfully hauling down Victor Vito and Botia in turn. From the third it was a hit by Ntamack, not exactly renowned for his tackling, which dislodged the ball from a charging Botia.
A quick strike by Peato Mauvata alleviated the pressure but the showers made for a slippery pill and either side of a fumble by Medard, Ntamack missed a penalty to touch and then kicked out on the full.
La Rochelle weren’t pressing home their supremacy, but they were tightening the screw through their pack, and when Rynhardt Elstadt was pinged for side entry West again drew the sides level.
Whereupon came the game’s pivotal moment.
Luke Pearce had yellow carded Botia for tackling Dupont within a metre of the scrum-half’s quick tap but this had been preceded by the Fijian’s huge but high hit on Medard.
The TMO Tom Foley advised Pearce to review the hit and in truth their collective decision to send off Botia given his shoulder made direct contact with Medard’s neck/head.
In the stands, O’Gara’s mind no doubt flashed back to the 2016 French Championship final in the Camp Nou when Racing, with whom he was an assistant coach then, overcame the 19th minute sending off of Maxime Machenaud to beat Toulon 21-19.
Medard soon knocked on before belatedly being removed for an HIA and, undeterred, La Rochelle launched their power runners off Kerr-Barlow through 14 phases. Elstadt was pinged for playing the ball on the deck after the tackle, and O’Gara’s disgust at the lack of a yellow card was eased after the TMO and Pearce saw the replays and sinbinned Toulouse’s Springbok flanker for an inane lack of discipline.
West and Ntamack traded further penalties before West made it 12-9 with the last kick of the half after Joe Tekori was very harshly pinged by Pearce in what seemed a legit jackal.
On the resumption, La Rochelle reverted to their potent maul and Pierre Bourgarit won a trademark penalty in the jackal but West hooked the kickable penalty wide.
This was compounded by Toulouse finally springing to life. Peato Mauvaka, who had ably replaced the suspended captain Julian Machand, picked and went before offloading for the supporting Dupont. Seeming to freeze time, as he does, Dupont cross kicked for the hitherto starved Cheslin Kolbe, whose foot was dragged over the touchline by Geoffrey Doumayrou’s covering tackle.
Compensation came by way of another Ntamack penalty after Doumayrou was offside but crazy game management by Toulouse, Elstadt knocking on Tekori’s offload, afforded La Rochelle another attacking scrum. Alas for La Rochelle, in a game of hard-earned inches, Bourgarit lost control of the ball in reaching out for the line when tackled by Mauvaka.
Dupont, his influence now growing, probed the blind side for the classy Medard to thread a deft grubber through the eye of a needle for Matthis Lebel to gather, Dillyn Leyds timing his try-saving tackle perfectly.
Toulouse themselves went up the guts through a dozen phases off a clever lineout variation, Mauvaka going over the top to Kaino, and but for Pearce decreeing no try on field, Rory Arnold’s evident grounding beyond the line would have been awarded.
It was only a stay of execution. La Rochelle had sought to compensate for Botia’s red card by stationing Grégory Alldritt in midfield off Toulouse lineouts and by defending from the outside in, leaving space on the edge.
But when les rouge et noire went through the phases and reloaded to the right Ntamack, who had sought to find the space out wide with a chip minutes earlier, this time floated a pass over two defenders for Selevasio Tolofua, not long on for Kaino, to steam onto the ball.
He had options on either side and chose the right one in Mallía on his inside, the Puma finishing from the 22 smartly. Ntamack also converted for a 19-12 lead.
Nothing was going La Rochelle’s way, the talented Paul Boudehent departing within a minute of arriving and his replacement Thomas Lavault was harshly pinged after unluckily slipping to the ground when Arthur Retiere ran into traffic as they tried to play catch-up.
Ntamack briefly made it a two-score lead but La Rochelle, gamey to the end, went to their maul once more for Kerr-Barlow to find a relatively, and surprisingly, easy blindside finish. West hit the upright for a second time with the conversion.
Doumayrou’s huge touchfinder forced Toulouse to exit off a lineout inside their own 22 and then defend through 10 phases outside their 22. Typical of his erratic display, Ntamack prematurely looked to kick the ball dead and was nabbed with what seemed a reprise of Poitrenaud’s error here in 2004, before Dupont did so after one more recycle.
They made heavy weather of it, but Toulouse have beaten Leinster to a fifth star. Roll on next season’s Champions Cup, hopefully with full stadia, a full schedule and no disruptions.
Scoring sequence: 5 mins Ntamack pen 3-0; 8 mins West pen 3-3; 11 mins Ntamack pen 6-3; 27 mins West pen 6-6; 33 mins West pen 6-9; 38 mins Ntamack pen 9-9; 40 (+1) mins West pen 9-12; (half-time 9-12); 47 mins Ntamack pen 12-12; 60 mins Mallía try, Ntamack con 19-12; 69 mins Ntamack pen 22-12; 73 mins Kerr-Barlow try 22-17.
Toulouse: Maxime Médard; Cheslin Kolbe, Juan Cruz Mallía, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Cyril Baille, Peato Mauvaka, Charlie Faumuina, Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold, Rynhardt Elstadt, Francois Cros, Jerome Kaino. Replacements: Joe Tekori for Richie Arnold (10 mins), Thomas Ramos for Medard (29-38 mins), Selevasio Tolofua for Kaino (55 mins), David Ainu’u for Faumuina (65 mins), Guillaume Marchand for Mauvaka, Clément Castets for Baille, Thibaud Flament for Rory Arnold (all 70 mins), Baille for Castets (80 mins). Not used - Baptiste Germain. Sinbinned - Elstadt (33-43 mins).
La Rochelle: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Levani Botia, Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Tawera Kerr Barlow; Dany Priso, Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio, Romain Sazy (capt), Will Skelton, Grégory Alldritt, Kevin Gourdon, Victor Vito. Replacements: Reda Wardi for Priso (half-time), Arthur Retiere for Leyds (52-55 and 68 mins), Wiaan Liebenberg for Vito (55 mins), Facundo Bosch for Bourgarit, Paul Boudehent for Gourdon (both 61 mins), Thomas Lavault for Boudehent (62 mins), Arthur Joly for Atonio (65 mins). Not used - Jules Plisson. Sent off - Botia (28 mins).
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)