Champions Cup final: La Rochelle on the verge of an historic breakthrough

Toulouse possess superior pedigree but O’Gara’s men have significant momentum

Head coach Ronan O’Gara, assistant forwards coach Romain Carmignani and director of rugby Jono Gibbes during the La Rochelle Captain’s Run at Twickenham on Friday ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup Final. Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

Head coach Ronan O’Gara, assistant forwards coach Romain Carmignani and director of rugby Jono Gibbes during the La Rochelle Captain’s Run at Twickenham on Friday ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup Final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Heineken Champions Cup Final: La Rochelle v Toulouse, Twickenham, Saturday, 4.45 – Live on Channel 4/ Virgin Media/BT Sport

There have been some grumblings in France that this final is taking place in London but the venue actually gives this intriguing all-French final a more authentic European feel as well as showcasing the Top 14 abroad.

The contrast, between aristocracy and upstarts, couldn’t be starker. Toulouse, the four-time winners, are playing in their seventh final and their 179th match in this competition. La Rochelle’s first final will be just their 19th match.

Toulouse have won three of the previous five all-French finals, albeit they haven’t always been the most fluent affairs. Helpfully though, the foreboding long-range forecast has eased, with the chance of a few scattered showers amid sunny spells and a gentle breeze.

Both teams are awash with X-factor and potential match-winners, and Toulouse look to have a clear advantage at half-back with Antoine Dupont, captain for the day, and Romain Ntamack, but then that’s true whenever they play.

But they’re missing their suspended captain Julien Marchand, dynamic on the ball and lethal on the ground, and without his darts their normally reliable lineout suffered in last week’s home defeat by Bayonne.

Peato Mauvaka starts at hooker, with Marchand’s younger brother, Guillaume, on the bench. Influential Springbok backrower Rynhardt Elstadt returns while the Argentinian Juan Cruz Mallía replaces the injured Zack Holmes at outside centre.

Damian de Allende led Holmes a merry dance in Thomond Park, but he provides Toulouse with a passing and kicking option which h may also be missed.

By contrast, La Rochelle’s Fijian centre Levani Botia has overcome his ankle ligament injury and they make two changes from the semi-final win over Leinster. Kevin Gourdon’s carrying and support play are preferred to the big tackling of Wiaan Liebenberg while Dany Priso starts ahead of Reda Wardi at loosehead.

Ronan O’Gara has made it clear that La Rochelle will be looking to starve Dupont, Cheslin Kolbe and co of possession. As well as using their power carriers, Will Skelton, Grégory Alldritt and Victor Vito, La Rochelle may look to keep the ball on the field while strangling Toulouse with the O’Gara devised ‘attack the ball’ defensive system which neutralised Leinster.

Not only is Marchand a huge loss but Toulouse also lost by 44-10 in Toulon a week after their semi-final amid signs that their slightly heavier load has taken more of a toll.

Long association

Interest in Ireland is also heightened by Toulouse having beaten Ulster and Munster en route while La Rochelle ended Leinster’s hopes impressively three weeks ago.

“There’s a long association with this tournament in Ireland, a proud tradition going all the way back to Ulster and, obviously, Munster and Leinster,” said Jono Gibbes yesterday.

Noting how honest O’Gara had been with the players in relaying his own experiences of winning and, more pertinently, losing finals, Gibbes added: “My biggest compliment for him is that he’s come into a club, Stade Rochelais, which is a traditional attack club, not a massive focus on defence, and helped instil a real defensive steel, a system that all the players have bought into and understand.

“That, for me, is a strong indicator of a quality coach that is competent but can also communicate effectively and educate players.”

Pedigree points to Toulouse, who have won five of the last six meetings, yet something about La Rochelle’s progress in recent months suggests their name, along with Gibbes and O’Gara, may be on this trophy.

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: Facundo Bosch, Reda Wardi, Arthur Joly, Thomas Lavault, Wiaan Liebenberg, Paul Boudehent, Arthur Retiere, Jules Plisson.

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: Guillaume Marchand, Clément Castets, David Ainu’u, Joe Tekori, Thibaud Flament, Selevasio Tolofua, Baptiste Germain, Thomas Ramos.

Referee: Luke Pearce (England)

Routes to the final – La Rochelle: 13-8 v Edinburgh (a); W/O v Bath (h); 27-16 v Gloucester (a); 45-21 v Sale (h); 32-23 v Leinster (h). Toulouse: 29-22 v Ulster (h); W/O v Exeter (h); 40-33 v Munster (a); 21-12 v Clermont (a); 21-9 v Bordeaux-Begles (h).

Leading try scorers – La Rochelle: Raymond Rhule 3. Toulouse: Antoine Dupont 4.

Leading points scorers – La Rochelle: Ihaia West 48. Toulouse: Romain Ntamack 52.

Betting: 7-5 La Rochelle, 17-1 Draw, 8-13 Toulouse. Handicap odds (La Rochelle +3pts): 1-1 La Rochelle, 22-1 Draw, 1-1 Toulouse.

Forecast: La Rochelle to win.

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