Toulouse notch fifth European title as O'Gara's 14-man La Rochelle come up short

Levani Botia’s first-half red card for a high tackle left La Rochelle with an uphill battle.

La Rochelle 17

Toulouse 22

IT WAS FITTING that a very characteristic Toulouse try finally saw them crack the stubborn La Rochelle defence. A glorious long pass, a back row carrying into space, the inside support, the sweeping finish.

pita-ahki-celebrates-with-his-teammates-as-heineken-cup-champions Toulouse celebrate their victory at Twickenham. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Toulouse are synonymous with the Heineken Champions Cup and, again, it’s fitting that they become the first team to claim a fifth title. Leinster’s dream of being the first to earn a fifth European star is over.

Toulouse will recognise just as much as anyone that a red card had a major say in this final, Levani Botia being sent off in the 28th minute and leaving Ronan O’Gara’s team with a real uphill battle on their hands. 

They gave it a fair old rattle, even managing to score late on and ensure a very nervy ending for Toulouse, but Botia’s highly-dangerous high tackle on Maxime Médard left La Rochelle with a mammoth task in front of a crowd of 10,000 at Twickenham in London.

They managed to recover and lead at the half-time break but Toulouse’s flowing attacking thrust finished by centre Juan Cruz Mallía and the faultless place-kicking of France out-half Romain Ntamack carried them to their first Heineken Cup success since 2010.

It’s a thoroughly disappointing outcome for O’Gara and his La Rochelle players but they have had an excellent run to reach this decider and it seems obvious that they are now here to stay as European contenders. The Irishman will be the main man in charge from this summer onwards as Jono Gibbes departs for Clermont and we surely haven’t seen the last of La Rochelle on this stage.

In London today, they had to taste the pain of defeat with their first major trophy success so close. As O’Gara knows, that pain is sometimes necessary before glory arrives. 

luke-pearce-shows-levani-botia-a-red-card-after-first-showing-him-a-yellow-card-for-a-dangerous-tackle Luke Pearce shows Levani Botia his red card. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Botia’s red card was by some distance the most notable moment of an edgy, physical first half that left La Rochelle 12-9 in front at the break despite Toulouse’s numerical advantage. 

Ntamack’s 40-metre penalty shot gave the four-time champions a fifth-minute lead but Ihaia West swiftly responded with three points for La Rochelle after a lineout penalty concession by Toulouse, who then lost second row Richie Arnold to an early injury.

Ntamack was on target again in the 11th minute before ‘The Fields of Athenry’ rang out around Twickenham just as La Rochelle’s scrum showed its might. The set-piece progress was intoxicating for O’Gara’s side and they opted against kicking two penalties for goal in favour of attacking scrums five metres out, only to fail to convert those platforms into a try.

Toulouse were struggling to get out of their half, however, and West was able to level the game at 6-6 after his team’s maul drew a penalty at the maul. 

A minute later, they lost Botia to his red card after his direct shot onto the head of Toulouse fullback Médard’s – who incredibly didn’t go for an immediate HIA but passed it when he was belatedly withdrawn a couple of minutes later.

Referee Luke Pearce initially showed Botia yellow but the replays clearly showed that Botia’s hit fully warranted red and La Rochelle were down to 14 men after just 28 minutes. 

ronan-ogara-reacts Ronan O'Gara calls for Toulouse's Elstadt to be yellow-carded. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their immediate response was excellent as big carries from Will Skelton and Uini Atonio followed an attacking dart by fullback Brice Dulin, with Toulouse flanker Rynhardt Elstadt illegally playing the ball on the ground after his tackle on Atonio. TMO Tom Foley flagged the offence with Pearce, who sent Elstadt for 10 minutes in the sin bin.

West converted the penalty into three points off the tee but Toulouse drew level again via the boot of Ntmack after Skelton was penalised for tackling the out-half off the ball after his chip kick.

There was still time for one final penalty before the break as Joe Tekori – on for the injured Arnold – was pinged for hands in the ruck and West nudged La Rochelle in front with the last act of the first half.

La Rochelle called for a high tackle by Toulouse’s Pita Ahki on Grégory Alldritt just after the break but Pearce ruled that it was legal and instead awarded Pierre Bourgarit a breakdown turnover penalty that West should have slotted, instead striking it wide of the posts.

Toulouse finally broke out in attack just after that miss, hooker Paeto Mauvaka picking and sneaking over the top of a ruck, then linking to Antoine Dupont, who sublimely kicked out to the right on the move. The ball bounced up into the hands of Cheslin Kolbe and the Springbok nearly finished what would have been a stunning try in the corner only for Geoffrey Doumayrou’s sublime tackle to force his foot into touch.

But Doumayrou was offside chasing a kick on the ensuing exit attempt and Ntamack popped over the straightforward three points for 12-12.

juan-cruz-mallia-scores-a-try Juan Cruz Mallia scores for Toulouse. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Toulouse had their own problems getting out of their 22 just after, however, with Elstadt knocking the ball on to invite La Rochelle’s forwards to attempt to smash their way over with a series of pick and carries. 

It looked like they might force their way over for the first try of the game but hooker Pierre Bourgarit knocked-on as he attempted to stretch out and score. A penalty concession by La Rochelle at the ensuing scrum allowed Toulouse to lift the pressure.

Toulouse were next to threaten as Médard cleverly grubber-kicked down the left for wing Matthis Lebel to regather the ball but his offload went loose and rebounded into touch.

Mola’s men went very direct with their next attack, battering through La Rochelle defenders at the fringes of rucks and very nearly squeezing over through Rory Arnold, but the TMO review couldn’t identify a clear grounding so Pearce instead went to an offside penalty. Toulouse went into the left corner but La Rochelle held firm in defence.

The 14 men were always likely to be stretched again, however, and they finally broke in the 60th minute as Ntamack swung a gorgeous double skip pass wide to replacement back row Selevasio Tolofua in space on the right just inside La Rochelle’s half and he drew a defender before passing back inside to centre Juan Cruz Mallía, who skipped away from a despairing last tackle attempt to score.

tawera-kerr-barlow-scores-a-try Kerr-Barlow scored late on for La Rochelle. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ntamack added the extras for a 19-12 Toulouse lead and then La Rochelle lost 21-year-old back row Paul Boudehent to a shoulder injury just a minute after he was introduced off the bench.

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Toulouse gave themselves more breathing room heading towards the final 10 minutes as Ntamack slotted a penalty, punishing La Rochelle for sealing off at the breakdown and continuing his 100% return off the tee.

But La Rochelle weren’t dead just yet, earning a penalty they kicked down the left and then hammering away at the Toulouse tryline until scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow dove over the tryline and dotted down.

They desperately needed the conversion with six minutes remaining but West again had a poor miss off the tee as his shot connected with the right post and bounced away.

There were a few more heart-stopping moments for the victors – La Rochelle had a few penalty claims – but Toulouse edged over the line for their fifth title. 

La Rochelle scorers:

Tries: Tawera Kerr-Barlow

Conversions: Ihaia West [0 from 1]

Penalties: Ihaia West [4 from 6]

Toulouse scorers:

Tries: Juan Cruz Mallía

Conversions: Romain Ntamack [1 from 1]

Penalties: Romain Ntamack [5 from 5]

LA ROCHELLE: Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds (HIA – Arthur Retiere ’52 to ’60, permanent ’68), Geoffrey Doumayrou, Levani Botia (red card ’28), Raymond Rhule; Ihaia West, Tawera Kerr Barlow; Dany Priso (Reda Wardi ’41), Pierre Bourgarit (Facundo Bosch ’60), Uini Atonio (Arthur Joly ’65); Romain Sazy (captain), Will Skelton; Grégory Alldritt, Kevin Gourdon (Paul Boudehent ’60 (Thomas Lavault ’62)), Victor Vito (Wiaan Liebenberg ’55).

Replacements: Jules Plisson.

TOULOUSE: Maxime Médard (HIA – Thomas Ramos ’29 to ’38); Cheslin Kolbe, Juan Cruz Mallía, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (captain); Cyril Baille (Clément Castets ’70, reversal ’79), Peato Mauvaka (Guillaume Marchand ’70), Charlie Faumuina (David Ainu’u ’65); Rory Arnold (Thibaud Flament ’70), Richie Arnold (Joe Tekori ’10); Rynhardt Elstadt (yellow card ’33), Francois Cros, Jerome Kaino (Selevasio Tolofua ’55).

Replacements: Baptiste Germain.

Referee: Luke Pearce [RFU].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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