Dave Winter/INPHO La Rochelle's supporters before the semi-final win over Leinster.
Shades of Munster's journey about La Rochelle's quest for first European title
Ronan O’Gara and co. will have to see off Toulouse to claim their first European title at Twickenham.

MUCH OF WHAT has happened around La Rochelle in recent weeks must feel familiar to Ronan O’Gara, who has been through this kind of thing before with Munster.

The pandemic has denied La Rochelle’s fans the chance to fully unleash their support in bulk crowds at games but the local excitement and passion have still been giddily clear.

Before the Leinster semi-final, les Maritimes’ fervent supporters lined the entrance to the Stade Marcel Deflandre to cheer their players in and then celebrate with them after that impressive win. As towering lock Will Skelton noted this week, it might not have been Covid-friendly “but it revved us up for the game.”

On Thursday, there were similar scenes at La Rochelle airport as director of rugby Jono Gibbes, head coach O’Gara, and their players arrived to board a flight to London for today’s Heineken Champions Cup final clash with Toulouse [KO 4.45pm, Virgin Media/BT Sport].

The sad thing is that the French club’s supporters couldn’t travel en masse to be in Twickenham this evening, with Toulouse fans in the same boat. If La Rochelle pull it off, many of their fans will be denied that ‘I was there’ weekend and all of the memories that go along with it. There will be a crowd of up to 10,000 people in the stadium today, however, providing welcome colour and noise.

It’s impossible to avoid the parallels between La Rochelle’s rise and that of Munster back in the 2000s when the Irish province’s remarkable travelling hordes won the hearts of nearly everyone in European rugby. 

O’Gara and La Rochelle hope their journey will be different to Munster’s in that they win the European final at the first time of asking rather than having to taste the agony of defeat before lifting the trophy. And though they face four-time champions Toulouse, there is genuine self-belief in the La Rochelle ranks.

victor-vito-with-ronan-ogara Billy Stickland / INPHO Victor Vito with Ronan O'Gara yesterday. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

With their team including World Cup winners Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, a previous European champion in Skelton, plus French internationals and Springboks, there is cause for the confidence. Part of O’Gara’s role in all of this has been to come into the club and ask ‘why not us?’ The Cork man couldn’t understand why La Rochelle, with their array of stars, weren’t genuinely striving to win trophies on a regular basis. 

The dominant win over Leinster in the recent semi-final is another reason for belief. 

La Rochelle were physically better on that occasion as Skelton led the way, while halfback pair Kerr-Barlow and Ihaia West offered a sharp kicking game along with fullback Brice Dulin, and we also know they can keep the ball alive in the tackle and play to width accurately too. Their set-piece strike plays have been intelligent under O’Gara.

With Fijian inside centre Levani Botia passed fit to start today, they also have one of their primary gainline weapons in situ, while his jackal ability is a key defensive tool. O’Gara has spent time and energy making La Rochelle more organised and harder-working without the ball.

They will have to be at their best in that sense to keep this dangerous Toulouse team quiet. Cheslin Kolbe and Antoine Dupont are two of the best players in the sport, capable of breaking games open with their attacking skills, but les Toulousains also have plenty of size, power, and grit from the likes of Rory and Richie Arnold, Charlie Faumuina, Jerome Kaino, and Rynhardt Elstadt. 

toulouses-cheslin-kolbe Billy Stickland / INPHO Cheslin Kolbe is a danger man for Toulouse. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Ugo Mola’s side are missing centre Sofiane Guitoune through injury, which means a first-ever Champions Cup start for Juan Cruz Mallia in midfield, while captain and hooker Julien Marchand is suspended for a dangerous tackle in their semi-final victory over Bordeaux in what is a major blow.

The forecast tells us there will be rain in London today but the neutrals will be hoping that doesn’t mean less of the attacking brilliance that both sides are capable of.

The all-French knock-out games in this Champions Cup have been tight, tense affairs so far and while this final will obviously call for calm decision-making, the hope is that La Rochelle and Toulouse draw each other into a tit-for-tat battle that showcases their full array of attacking qualities. 

Toulouse are the marginal favourites but even if La Rochelle don’t pull it off today, it looks likely O’Gara’s men are here to stay at the top table of European rugby.

La Rochelle:

15. Brice Dulin
14. Dillyn Leyds
13. Geoffrey Doumayrou
12. Levani Botia
11. Raymond Rhule
10. Ihaia West
9. Tawera Kerr Barlow

1. Dany Priso
2. Pierre Bourgarit
3. Uini Atonio
4. Romain Sazy (captain)
5. Will Skelton
6. Grégory Alldritt
7. Kevin Gourdon
8. Victor Vito


16. Facundo Bosch
17. Reda Wardi
18. Arthur Joly
19. Thomas Lavault
20. Wiaan Liebenberg
21. Paul Boudehent
22. Arthur Retiere
23. Jules Plisson


15. Maxime Médard
14. Cheslin Kolbe
13. Juan Cruz Mallía
12. Pita Ahki
11. Matthis Lebel
10. Romain Ntamack
9. Antoine Dupont (captain)

1. Cyril Baille
2. Peato Mauvaka
3. Charlie Faumuina
4. Rory Arnold
5. Richie Arnold
6. Rynhardt Elstadt
7. Francois Cros
8. Jerome Kaino


16. Guillaume Marchand
17. Clément Castets
18. David Ainu’u
19. Joe Tekori
20. Thibaud Flament
21. Selevasio Tolofua
22. Baptiste Germain
23. Thomas Ramos 

Referee: Luke Pearce [RFU].

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