Toulouse grind it out to be crowned European champions again
First-half red card for Levani Botia put Ronan O’Gara’s side on the back foot
Toulouse players celebrate at the final whistle after beating La Rochelle to win the Champions Cup. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Toulouse 22 La Rochelle 19
Toulouse beat the first-time finalists and so beat Leinster to the punch in winning their fifth star, although like pretty much each of the previous six all-French deciders this was not a five-star final.
There have been worse finals and it was always interesting and in the balance - the sides were level four times and for all but four minutes there was never more than a score between them.
However, save for an exciting endgame the potential for a classic was never realised. The showers and the slippery pill – witness two knock-ons by Maxime Medard and one by Levani Botia early on – contributed to that.
As is usually the case with an English referee in charge, Luke Pearce was the game’s dominant personality and, typically, he had a high penalty count of 10-9 in favour of Toulouse.
La Rochelle’s approach was, of necessity, restricted after Botia’s 28th minute sending off although, in mitigation of Pearce, he and his team were correct in the vast majority of their decisions, not least in that red card and the ensuing yellow for Rynhardt Elstadt.
Pearce does communicate clearly though, and more than most English-speaking referees and to his credit he makes every effort to do so in French if required.
This was Toulouse’s seventh final in total and like the previous six it was a one-score game. As is the way of finals, the margin were so fine, and so much hinged on the goalkicking of the respective halves Romain Ntamack and Ihaia West.
Not unexpectedly, Ntamack proved more reliable, striking the ball much more sweetly from the off and landing seven from seven including a couple from close to 50 metres range whereas West missed three of seven.
Two came off the upright, amounting to five points, and therein lay the winning margin.
Furthermore, finals being all about winning, Toulouse opted for a shot at goal whenever afforded the opportunity. By contrast, whereas they kept the scoreboard ticking against Leinster in the semi-finals, La Rochelle eschewed one three-pointer from in front of the posts when choosing a five metre scrum which went unrewarded.
La Rochelle had more of the game, especially in an imposing first-half when they had 66 per cent of the territory. With the combined 46 stone of Uini Atonio and Will Skelton on the tighthead side, they had the better scrum and lineout maul - scoring 11 points off the latter.
They also had many of the game’s better performers, not least Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio, Grégory Alldritt (16 carries for 46 metres), Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Yet they also had some of the poorest in West and the unfortunate Botia, while the accuracy of Toulouse’s chop tackling ensured the surprisingly quiet Skelton made negligible impact with his 10 carries.
Regrets, La Rochelle will have plenty. As Ronan O’Gara admitted afterwards, “we weren’t accurate enough in the first 40”, as evidenced by Kerr-Barlow passing behind Botia off one five-metre scrum and Botia knocking on off the second.
Save for the middle chunk of the second period when they scored 13 unanswered points, Toulouse failed to make their numerical supremacy count although they were the more adventurous and threatening in parts.
They left a few tries behind. The excellent man of the match Francois Cros might have connected with Cheslin Kolbe after his big second minute break. The equally under-used Matthis Lebel knocked on when put clear. Had the increasingly influential and defensively superb Antoine Dupont, making time seem to stand still as only he does, put a tad more air on his cross kick Kolbe would have scored instead of his feet being dragged over the touchline by Doumayrou’s brilliant covering tackle.
Rory Arnold also seemed to have a legitimate try over-ruled and Ntamack might have put Kolbe over if he’d opted for a long pass before finally locating the space on the edge with his sublime floated pass for Selevasio Tolofua to put Juan Cruz Mallía over for the match-defining try.
In tandem with his pinpoint goal-kicking, that was typical of Ntamack’s vision, yet his was a particularly curious performance. Untypically, he knocked on a high ball, he missed a penalty to touch, kicked out on the full after the ball had been brought back into the 22 and failed to bring his outside backs into play when there where chances to do so.
At times, his game management, even in tandem with Dupont, was not on point, not least when Toulouse failed to exit which led to La Rochelle’s post-interval access inside the 22 and then, finally and almost fatally, he prematurely looked to kick the ball dead before being bailed out by some of his teammates for one more desperate recycle.
Yet, a quarter of a century on from his father Emile captaining Toulouse to victory in the first final in Cardiff Arms Park, with current head coach Ugo Mola a replacement on the other wing, Ntamack’s 17-point haul brought his overall tournament tally to 107 points, precisely the same as his father’s career total.
And so they became the first father-son combination to win this tournament. Maybe destiny called him and Toulouse after all.
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).