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Ronan O'Gara leads La Rochelle to first Champions Cup title with stunning last-gasp victory over Leinster

Arthur Retiere scored a late try to deny Leinster a fifth European star in the most dramatic of fashion in Marseille.

La Rochelle's Arthur Retiere scores the winning try.
La Rochelle's Arthur Retiere scores the winning try.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Leinster 21

La Rochelle 24

WHAT AN OCCASION, what a contest, and what a team Ronan O’Gara has forged in La Rochelle.

The former Munster and Ireland out-half loved the underdog tag and his team have embraced that spirit, claiming a thrilling Heineken Champions Cup success and doing it against supreme opposition, denying a heavily-fancied Leinster team a fifth European star with a gripping 24-21 win in Marseille.

It was the cruellest of defeats for Leinster as La Rochelle somehow summoned the energy and desire to mount a remarkable second-half comeback and land the club’s first Champions Cup title.

Leo Cullen’s team have played some scintillating rugby on their way to this final but on a gorgeous day in the south of France, the province had to roll up their sleeves and box clever against a stubborn La Rochelle team, their effort eventually coming up short as Arthur Retiere pounced for a last-minute try to claim a dramatic victory.

Marseille wasn’t the easiest destination for travelling supporters but walking around France’s oldest city on a sunny May morning, it was abundantly clear that there was a major event in town.

Leinster’s supporters were buzzing around the old port and appeared to be taking over the city, until one followed the road out to the stunning 67,000 Stade Vélodrome, where La Rochelle’s travelling support were camped outside the ground, singing songs and lighting flares and dreaming of witnessing history.

Leinster travelled to their third final in five years as hot favourites, but La Rochelle were revelling with the underdog tag. All week, O’Gara had exuded the quiet confidence of a man who had a plan up his sleeve, his team having knocked Leinster out in the semi-final stages 12 months ago.

This was a Champions Cup final that felt a little different; taking place in a soccer town, in a soccer stadium, under a scorching French sun, the temperature hovering around the 30C mark as the teams entered the pitch to the usual series of fireworks and fanfare that comes with the biggest game in European club rugby, a crowd of just over 59,000 descending on this stunning venue.

In the opening minutes of the game, Leinster were made acutely aware that they were a long way from home. In the fourth minute, as Johnny Sexton lined up his first shot at the posts, a chorus of boos rang around the arena before French rugby’s favourite villain put Leinster’s first three points of the day on the board.

The province would stick to that early tactic as they looked to take control of the contest. 

Sexton opted for the posts over the corner again as La Rochelle gave away another needless penalty for offside, the out-half moving his team into an early 6-0 lead.

So far, so good.

Then La Rochelle burst into life. After some good work at the breakdown, the French side moved the ball wide where there appeared little room for manoeuvre. Dillyn Leyds freed his hands through the tightest of gaps between Tadhg Furlong and Jimmy O’Brien to play in Raymond Rhule, the Springbok wing showing superb acceleration to round Hugo Keenan and dot down, swinging the momentum in an instant. La Rochelle out-half Ihaia West, a man who tends to blow hot and cold with his kicking, nailed the conversion to push La Rochelle into a one-point lead.

raymond-rhule-scores-the-opening-try Raymond Rhule dives over to score La Rochelle's first try. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Game on. 

La Rochelle then provided another major signal of their intent with a big shove at the scrum, winning a penalty and reminding everyone in the stadium that the Leinster setpiece can be put under real pressure. 

Shortly after, Leinster lost hooker Rónan Kelleher to injury, Dan Sheehan coming in early for a 65-minute shift. As both coaches warned during the week, best-laid plans can often fly out the window when it comes to finals.

Having started so brightly Leinster were now scrambling to keep La Rochelle at bay. The French side had come to play, proving they’re much more than flat-track bullies. In those opening stages their passing was clinical and accurate, their work rate superb and their ambition admirable.

In the face of intense La Rochelle pressure, a Leinster team that have been so clinical and accurate in reaching this final started to see passes miss targets and moves break down. 

Just after the 20-minute mark, after Sheehan had overthrown a lineout, Leinster were offered the opportunity to seize the lead again as Sexton slotted his third penalty of the evening. 

La Rochelle kept the intensity up. Will Skelton showed no signs of his recent calf injury as he barrelled through a series of close-quarter contacts. Leyds then released Rhule again with another flash of brilliant handling, but this time the move broke down, Sexton shipping a knock to his leg somewhere amid the chaos. The boos rose again as he received treatment on the turf. 

He wasn’t the only man feeling the effects of a frantic, high-tempo first half.

josh-van-der-flier-is-tackled-by-ihaia-west-and-thomas-berjon Leinster's Josh Van der Flier is tackled by Ihaia West and Thomas Berjon of La Rochelle. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

La Rochelle continued to batter away at Leinster and shortly before half-time, they found themselves camped on the Leinster line, a ferocious defensive effort shutting down a series of carries from the massive French pack. 

They tried a different approach, the ball moving wide to the right where La Rochelle had a three-on-two advantage, but Jérémy Sinzelle’s whipped pass just evaded Brice Dulin. 

For all La Rochelle’s fight, Leinster brought plenty of their own. 

La Rochelle looked to turn the screw with another close-range scrum, but as the set-piece collapsed referee Wayne Barnes signalled for a Leinster penalty — a majorly unpopular decision with the vocal La Rochelle support, but one celebrated emphatically by Sexton. That initial scrum wobble felt an age away.

The game swung again. In the next play, Jimmy O’Brien kicked in behind and in a moment of madness, Dulin decided to try to dance his way out of danger from his own try-line. Gibson-Park chopped in on the full-back, with good support from O’Brien, and won the penalty. 

will-skelton-is-tackled-by-james-ryan-and-tadhg-furlong La Rochelle's Will Skelton is tackled by James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong of Leinster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This time Leinster left the scrum with the ball and looked to land the final punch of the opening period. Gibson-Park tried to snipe from close range but was shut down. Leinster went back for a penalty and Sexton kicked his fourth three-pointer of the day moments after La Rochelle had looked primed to pounce at the other end.

The province led 12-7 at the break but had a real scrap on their hands against a La Rochelle side missing their first-choice scrum-half in Tawera Kerr-Barlow and influential flanker Victor Vito.

The big question was if La Rochelle could carry that first-half effort into the second period.

They got the start they needed, West slotting an easy three points after winning a breakdown penalty almost straight from the restart.

Leinster went back down in the 22 but had to be patient with their attacking game as they edged towards the La Rochelle line. Danty put a big hit on Robbie Henshaw before Caelan Doris had a go from close range, only to see the ball held up. Barnes gave the penalty, Sexton eyed up the posts and Leinster restored their five-point advantage, his team seemingly inching closer and closer to the finish line.

La Rochelle offered up another penalty at the breakdown; Sexton said thank you very much. The province now led by eight, and La Rochelle would need at least two scores to claw their way back into the game.

West ran a great line to cut inside the Leinster 22, but in the next passage of play the La Rochelle forwards couldn’t make their passes stick, the failed play bearing the distant mark of a team flat out on their feet. Leinster negotiated their way out of the resulting scrum and Gibson-Park booted the ball back into the La Rochelle half.

Wiann Liebenberg won a big turnover and La Rochelle went again, Thomas Berjon taking a quick tap-and-go and kicking in behind and putting O’Brien under real pressure, the Leinster wing chasing back over the trying with Rhule bearing down on him. 

The ball struck O’Brien’s knee before bouncing out, and Sexton was left with a goal-line dropout.

brice-dulin-competes-in-the-air-with-jimmy-obrien La Rochelle's Brice Dulin competes in the air with Jimmy O'Brien of Leinster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Winning a penalty after Sexton opted to run the ball from deep, La Rochelle sensed an opportunity with their next lineout. An accurate move left Pierre Bourgait at the back of a well-set La Rochelle maul, and his pack drove through to allow the hooker to bundle over.

West added the extras and Leinster’s lead was cut back to one with 20 minutes to play. The province would have to see it out without their captain, as Sexton left the action to be replaced by Ross Byrne.

Then another self-inflicted La Rochelle blow, Thomas Lavault seeing yellow for a blatant trip on Gibson-Park. Byrne lined up his first kick of the day and split the posts, Leinster ahead by four points with 15 minutes left on the clock.

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A knock-on by Byrne handed La Rochelle another scrum right on the halfway line, and the French side’s pack got the upper hand again before a brilliant West kick sent La Rochelle to the corner. The lineout was clean and a series of white jerseys thundered into Leinster blue, the turf cutting up badly underneath. A second La Rochelle lineout saw them carry the ball infield and set up under the posts, eventually winning the penalty at the expense of Michael Ala’alatoa. 

The Leinster scrum found themselves under massive pressure again as La Rochelle broke free, Levani Botia stopped just short following a massive carry, and the ball then spun wide only for Dulin to spill it, the last action before Lavault returned from the bin.

Leinster were now firmly camped on their own line as La Rochelle tried to deliver one final, fatal blow, the game very much on the line entering the last five minutes of play, Josh van der Flier, James Ryan and Jack Conan all getting through a huge amount of work, with no room for error. 

Then it came. From the back of a mass of bodies, replacement scrum-half Retiere scrambled out and managed to duck under Garry Ringrose, his outstretched arm just about getting the ball over the line. A game of inches.

West kicked the conversion and Barnes called time, marking a historic win for a remarkably spirited La Rochelle team.

Leinster have rarely tasted a defeat as cruel as this, but for La Rochelle and O’Gara, it was a stunning victory that highlighted everything that makes the Champions Cup such a wonderful competition.

Year after year, it never fails to surprise and thrill. O’Gara knows that as well as anyone.

Leinster scorers:

Penalties – Sexton [6/6], Byrne [1/1]

La Rochelle scorers:

Tries – Rhule, Bourgait, Retiere 

Conversions – West [3/3] 

Penalties – West [1/1]

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain) (Ross Byrne, 63), Jamison Gibson-Park (Luke McGrath, 76); Andrew Porter (Cian Healy, 63), Rónan Kelleher (Dan Sheehan, 15), Tadhg Furlong (Michael Ala’alatoa, 63); Ross Molony (Joe McCarthy, 77), James Ryan; Caelan Doris (Rhys Ruddock, 67), Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

LA ROCHELLE: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds (Jules Favre, 67), Jérémy Sinzelle, Jonathan Danty (Levani Botia, 70), Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Thomas Berjon (Arthur Retiere, 65); Dany Priso (Reda Wardi, 55), Pierre Bourgarit, Uini Atonio (Joel Sclavi, 63); Thomas Lavault (Romain Sazy 76), Will Skelton; Wiaan Liebenberg (Remi Bourdeau, 60), Matthias Haddad (Remi Bourdeau, 30-40 HIA), Grégory Alldritt (captain).

Yellow card: Lavault, 64

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU]

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy  / Reports from Stade Vélodrome

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