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Are we at the start of an era of French dominance in the Champions Cup?

La Rochelle today became the 10th French side to reach the final of club rugby’s biggest competition.

Image: Dave Winter/INPHO

IT FEELS AS if we are back in 2015 again. Two French sides are on their way to a Champions Cup final, the fifth time there has been a Gallic showdown on the deciding day.

Talk of new a new era, then, is inevitable, even understandable. After all the Top14 contributed three of this year’s semi-finalists, five of the eight quarter-finalists while Montpellier have made it to the Challenge Cup final, reinforcing the idea that one league is way out in front of the others.

And you can’t argue with that – not this year.

Nor can you dispute what they have going for them; a huge TV deal combined with a plethora of rich, egomaniacal owners who are prepared to outbid the rest of the world to sign the game’s best players. And that is before we get to the point Robin Copeland made earlier this week, how French clubs have finally seen the value in getting fitter and more organised in recent years.

Given all we’ve said there, how can Irish clubs be expected to compete with all that?

Well, the answer is that they have done so since 1999. More to the point, they have certainly been in worse situations than this.

the-leinster-team-huddle-after-the-game Leinster players after today's match. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

Remember 2015/16? Leo Cullen may never forget it. He was in his rookie year as head coach at Leinster and his opening Champions Cup campaign ended with five defeats from six pool games. This was also the year when Munster were humiliated by 14-man Stade Francais in Paris and dubbed a ‘borderline disgrace’ by a club legend.

But something else happened in that 2015/16 season. A year after it was widely predicted that the Top 14 clubs were about to get a stranglehold of this competition for ever and a day, they ended up losing their grip on power – Saracens beating Racing 92 in the final.

And since then? The five subsequent titles have been shared between three Anglo-Irish clubs, Saracens, Exeter and Leinster.

So perhaps we should draw breath before jumping to conclusions. French clubs have always been big players in this competition – Toulouse winning the inaugural competition, Brive the second one – but it might surprise you to know that over the course of its 26-year history, the scoreboard reads: 10 competition wins for English sides, nine for French clubs and seven for the Irish provinces.

Empires fall almost as quickly as they rise in European rugby: Leicester reached five of the first 14 Heineken Cup finals but haven’t been to one since; Toulouse are in their first decider in 11 years after appearing in six up until 2010; Toulon have done nothing either side of their three-in-a-row.

raymond-rhule-competes-in-the-air-with-jordan-larmour La Rochelle overpowered Leinster today. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

“For us, playing Leinster was hugely exciting,” said Jono Gibbes, La Rochelle’s director of rugby. “It was the first time in the club’s history that we met them. Even the fact they are an Irish team, not in the Top 14, just created a real buzz and excitement and that’s what Europe should be about. We’ve now got to get over a French team (Toulouse) in the final that have done a number on us home and away this year, that has a great European pedigree. So that’s another challenge.”

The challenge for the Irish provinces is to bounce back from this unimpressive year which evidently won’t be easy but – for Leinster in particular – is doable.

The addition of four heavyweight South African sides to make the Pro14 more competitive will help; as will the return to a more regular, pool stage aspect of this Champions Cup competition next year.

The truth is that Irish teams benefit from the absence of relegation in the Pro14, allowing them to peak for European fixtures – a luxury not available to English and French clubs, some of whom show indifference to Champions Cup rugby, especially when they are out of the running for a quarter-final place.

What’s more, home advantage counts; Leinster and Munster have shown that in the knock-out stages over the years. Once crowds return to grounds, we can once again expect to see Irish clubs punch above their weight, especially on their own sod.

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That’s not to say that French clubs will go away. They won’t. This, remember, is the 27th edition of the Heineken Champions Cup and La Rochelle will become the 10th French club to reach the decider; whereas just six English sides have made it that far, three Irish provinces and only one Welsh side.

Expect, therefore, to see French teams re-appear in finals and semi-finals in the years ahead. But will they get it all their own way just because they have pretty much done so this year? Don’t bet on it.

“I’ve had a lot of experience with different squads and in all honesty it doesn’t come down to nationality and where you are born,” Gibbes said after today’s game. “It comes down to who you are and what kind of people you’ve got.

 “Yeah, we’ve got different nationalities here at La Rochelle but so what? Leinster have good guys and good people. They just happen to be born in Leinster and that works for them. The best environments are about whether you want to be here and want to contribute to make the place better. Leinster have that.”

So, clearly, do La Rochelle. That’s partly why they won today. But it doesn’t mean they’ll do it again next year or the year after. Scott Fardy, Devin Toner aside – it was a youngish Leinster team out there today, one that has gone semi-final, champions, runners-up, quarter-final, semi-final over the last five Champions Cup seasons. They aren’t going away; Saracens remember are coming back.

France’s Top14 contingent are in the ascendancy now, may still be next year, but will they be on top forever? History suggests no.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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