A first star at the end of the suspense! In a Stade Vélodrome in Marseille totally committed to their cause, the Maritimes won the final of the European Rugby Cup against the Irish of Leinster (24-21) on Saturday May 28. A first European title acquired at the last second thanks to a try by Arthur Retière, after an interminable showdown in front of the Irish line.
Unhappy at the same stage of the competition last year, as in the final of the Top 14 – both times against Toulouse –, the Rochelais have this time managed to put their name on the European charts. Stade Rochelais becomes the fourth French club to win the “big” European Cup after Toulouse (five titles), Brive (one) and Toulon (three). They are doing a great service to Stade Toulousain in passing: Leinster could indeed equal the record of the Rouge et Noir in the event of success on Saturday.
On Tuesday May 24, La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara confided that his club was “better equipped” than the previous season to clinch the title, and that this final against Leinster was “a wonderful opportunity”. Despite a difficult start to the game and two penalties by Jonathan Sexton (5th and 8th), the Rochelais proved him right by hitting first.
On a pass after contact, the man of the match Dillyn Leyds indeed found the South African winger Raymond Rhule, who was going to score the first try of the meeting by beating the last defender with a hook (12th). Seconds later, Ihaia West turned into a corner, having struggled in the drill in recent finals; the New Zealand opener allowed La Rochelle to take the lead (7-6).
Physically Challenged Dominators
Dominated on impact, and suffering in particular from the overpowering Australian second line Will Skelton and the French international Uini Atonio, the Irish could not put their game down like during their demonstration in the semi-final against Toulouse ( 40-17). But the Celtic players showed realism to regain the score thanks to the foot of Sexton (22nd). In position to score a penalty, the Rochelais chose the scrum and lost the ball in stride. A few minutes later, and in the same situation, the Irish chose them, in the job, to increase the score before halftime (12-7, 40th).
Coming back from the locker room, the Leinster players continued their tactic: to collect all the points that come their way. As a conductor, Jonathan Sexton continued to play his score with two new penalties (48th and 53rd) to respond to that of West (42nd). And while the Rochelais seemed promised a new defeat, they showed resilience to win at the end of the suspense.
Then led by four points (17-21), Ronan O’Gara’s men decided to play a penalty in touch in the 69th minute to force fate. The beginning of an endless showdown: the Rochelais multiplied the charges and impacts, retaining the ball thanks to returns to penalty advantages.
And while the forwards had been scrapping for long minutes, it was finally Arthur Retière, who came into play a few minutes earlier as scrum-half, who managed to relax his arm to score the release try (79th).
An achievement synonymous with a historic victory for La Rochelle, and an incredible year for French rugby. This success for the Maritimes is in addition to the title of the Blues in the Six Nations Tournament, and that of Lyon on Friday May 27, against Toulon in the final of the European Challenge.