Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle into maiden Top 14 final

A first ever French Championship beckons after semi-final win over Racing 92

La Rochelle’s players celebrate at the end of the French Top14  semi-final match against Racing92 at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in Lille. Photograph: Francois Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images

La Rochelle’s players celebrate at the end of the French Top14 semi-final match against Racing92 at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in Lille. Photograph: Francois Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images

 

La Rochelle 19 Racing 92 6

La Rochelle will contest their first ever French Championship final in Paris next Friday night, leaving Ronan O’Gara within one game of the biggest achievement of his fledgling coaching career.

Having come up short in their first Champions Cup final, they could well have a rematch in the French decider pending the outcome of the other semi-final between Toulouse and Bordeaux-Begles.

Executing a masterful game plan, La Rochelle were worthy winners. Jono Gibbes’ well-drilled pack dominated the set-pieces, especially at scrum time, their kick-chase game kept Racing under constant pressure, and O’Gara’s superbly drilled defence kept Racing, who lived off scraps all night, in check.

As a result, Simon Zebo played his last match for Racing before his prodigal return to Munster while Donnacha Ryan also played his last game before retirement and, ironically, joining O’Gara’s coaching staff next season at La Rochelle.

After Maxime Machenaud and Ihaia West exchanged a brace of penalties, Racing were indebted to Gaël Fickou for a huge turnover which restricted La Rochelle to a third penalty by West.

But La Rochelle had the stronger scrum and maul, the sharper plays, the better game management (Finn Russell was too risky after Racing took an early 3-9 lead with an overly ambitious cross kick) and had joy from their inventive kicking and chase game.

This was best evidenced by Brice Dulin’s deftest of chips for Arthur Retière to gather and score under pressure in one movement.

But for another big defensive play by Fickou the 16-6 scoreline would have been bigger in La Rochelle’s favour, and they were full value for their lead.

Simon Zebo of Racing 92 finds his way blocked during the Top 14 semi-final against La Rochelle. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho
Simon Zebo of Racing 92 finds his way blocked during the Top 14 semi-final against La Rochelle. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

Indeed, their scrum turned the screw on the resumption and after Retière came infield to snipe off the base and link with Romain Sazy, West’s penalty extended the lead to 13 points.

Racing started playing catch-up, and brought on Simon Zebo, but La Rochelle totem Uini Atonio somehow escaped what should have been a nailed-on yellow card for taking out Kurtley Beale off the ball.

Racing sporadically threatened to break out of their opponent’s vice like grip but with the roof kept open under increasing heavy rain, another penalty by West sealed La Rochelle’s first appearance in the final. They will take some stopping now.

Scoring sequence: 9 mins Machenaud pen 0-3; 13 mins West pen 3-3; 15 mins Machenaud pen 3-6; 21 mins West pen 6-6; 27 mins West pen 9-6; 29 mins Retière try, Machenaud con 16-16; (half-time 6-16); 55 mins West pen 19-6.

La Rochelle: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule, Jules Favre, 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: Thomas Lavault for Sazy (62 mins), Dany Priso for Wardi (63 mins), Arthur Joly for Atonio, Victor Vito for Gourdon (64 mins), Jules Plisson for West (65 mins), Jules Plisson for West (66 mins), Samuel Lagrange for Bosch (71 mins), Jule Le Bail for Kerr-Barlow (72 mins), Sazy for Skelton (78 mins). Not used - Darren Sweetnam.

Racing 92: Kurtley Beale; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gaël Fickou, Louis Dupichot; Finn Russell, Maxime Machenaud (capt); Hassane Kolingar, Teddy Baubigny, Cedric Gomes Sa; Bernard Le Roux, Dominic Bird; Boris Palu, Ibrahim Diallo, Antonie Claassen. Replacements: Donnacha Ryan for Bird (37-40 and 63 mins), Kevin Le Guen for Baubigny (half-time), Teddy Iribaren for Machenaud (49 mins), GH Colombe for Gomes Sa (52 mins), Wenceslas Lauret for Claassen, Simon Zebo for Dupichot (both 54 mins), Guram Gogichashvili for Kolingar (72 mins), Simon Zebo for Dupichot (54 mins). Not used - Francois Trinh-Duc.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal.

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