Champions Cup: Five takeaways from Leinster v La Rochelle as Gregory Alldritt leads incredible comeback

·6-min read
Gregory Alldritt for La Rochelle Credit: Alamy
Gregory Alldritt for La Rochelle Credit: Alamy

Following La Rochelle’s 27-26 victory over Leinster in the Champions Cup final at the Aviva Stadium, here’s our five takeaways from Dublin.

The top line

Wow. Simply wow.

The 2023 EPCR Champions Cup final had at all – power, pace, emotion, brutality, drama, controversy and of course, heroes. Heroes in Black and Yellow as La Rochelle simply turned around a brilliant first-half display from Leinster to retain their title by half the margin of last year – a single point – as they won one of the finest European finals of all time.

It was a duel of dynamic versus static power – one that saw Leinster expose their visitors with some brilliant work in the channels in the first half, when Jack Conan, Dan Sheehan and Jimmy O’Brien created havoc to take Leinster to what you might have thought was an unassailable 17-0 lead after 15 minutes, but rather crucially as it turned out, Ross Byrne missed two of the conversions.

It took La Rochelle almost a quarter of a game to get into the Leinster half and after a scrummage where Reda Wardi had Tadhg Furlong in a lot of trouble, so Jonathan Danty’s breeze block figure came back on a simple scissors move in midfield to go flying over.

The turning point

With the second half starting 23-7 in Leinster’s favour it seemed a matter of only how many they’d win by – but what unfolded in the next 40 minutes was a tidal change of tsunamic power, led by the European Player of the Year and Star of the Game, the magnificent Gregory Alldritt, Will Skelton, Tawara Kerr-Barlow and Antoine Hastoy.

Word is that as the players walked off at half time, some serious words and possibly a little more took place in a highly charged environment between the Leinster backroom staff and a couple of La Rochelle players as tempers overspilled between the two deadly rivals. Whether or not that galvanised La Rochelle is anyone’s guess but the way they came out after the break showed precisely why they were (and still are) the champions of Europe.

Until James Ryan left the pitch, Leinster’s command of the coast to coast game, with James Lowe prominent in everything, had been too much for the big Rochellians to cope with as they struggled to cope with one of the widest pitches in Europe. But for some inexplicable reason, Leo Cullen’s team got drawn into the only area of the game where they had a disadvantage – the arm wrestle of set-piece and maul. With Skelton playing on one leg, Alldritt playing almost as two men and with the La Rochelle front-row putting in a quite incredible shift, sooner or later things were going to crumble – and in the 71st minute a series of maul offences saw Georges-Henri Colombe crash over from short range to turn the Aviva Stadium into a vista of Black and Yellow.

The star and the starlet

Last night in the Challenge Cup we saw one of the all time greats of rugby effectively hang up his number eight shirt in the dressing room as Sergio Parisse walked off the Aviva to a standing ovation.

Alldritt somehow must have found that shirt as he put in the second monumental match of the weekend in the number eight position with one of the most persistent and abrasive displays of back-row play imaginable. It was almost as if the big La Rochellian was simply refusing to lose, a complete denial of what Leinster had done to his team in the first half and an outstanding essay of huge proportions on the subject of self-belief. In short, he was the most influential player on the pitch and it’s absolutely appropriate that he’ll travel back to the Atlantic coast with a substantial excess baggage on both his collective and personal level of silverware.

Alongside him, Hastoy had a flawless game in the 10 shirt, nailing every single kick, tackle, pass and catch. With so much depth in the French fly-half stocks, Hastoy goes under the radar to many but today was his moment in the sun as he delivered an exceptional display of game management.

The La Rochelle affair is a team effort but today we saw both their star and their starlet shine – brilliantly, compellingly and magnificently.

Veuve noire

There’s a phrase on the French Atlantic coast that La Rochelle are Leinster’s ‘veuve noire’ – named after the Black Widow spider that slowly removes the life from its prey and today that theory held as true as it did last year.

For some reason, Leinster simply seem unable to respond to the pressure La Rochelle’s huge side exert. That, together with the mind games of the brilliant and hilarious director of rugby Ronan O’Gara, has now seen them take the blue scalp three consecutive times.

For the neutral this was the triumph of the small town boys over the city slickers – a club in France that has built itself with breathtaking momentum into a fortress on the Atlantic Coast of rugby brilliance. It’s been done the right way – sell-out crowds, passionate supporters and rugby values that predate the club by some distance.

Those supporters – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the minority absolutely raised the roof on the Aviva. Their colour, pride and passion was wonderful to see and is everything that makes La Rochelle such a spectacularly great rugby club. They played their part in an epic afternoon and will travel back to France with sore throats, sore heads but overjoyed at their weekend in Dublin.

The bottom line

OK, let’s be honest – this wasn’t the most popular format at the start with confusion reigning at the group structures. But the season is a marathon, not a sprint and the finale was something to behold – a packed Aviva watching one of the most memorable games in the history of the competition and EPCR need to be commended for their work.

For La Rochelle, the words of former skipper Romain Sazy summed up just the impact of O’Gara and the fanatical support of the club:

“I have been here 13 years – I had no stars on my shirt a 15 months ago and now I have two,” he said. “For me this is more than rugby, this is more than friendship – it is brothers that love each other and are prepared to put their bodies on the line for each other.

“In ROG we have the final piece in the jigsaw – a man who has been there and done it and knows his tournament inside out and back to front.

“We are still not the finished article and we want to continue our journey. Today was one movement forward and we look forward to make the next step – as brothers together with our incredible fans.”

READ MORE: Champions Cup: La Rochelle fight back from 17 points down to beat Leinster and defend title

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