Beneath the beautifully curved roof of this stunning stadium, the question arose as to whether Leinster could finish the European football champion’s title. For some time, they were on a mission to capture their record-breaking fifth Champions Cup, and for about 79 minutes the stage seemed ready to complete their impressive determination.
Then in the end everything turned into ruins. After several years of coordinated forward pressing from La Rochelle, the ball fell into the hands of their reserve half, Arthur Ritter, one of the smaller players on the field. The 24-year-old stumbled at first but bounced back and stretched far enough to touch the streak and bring the final European title to the Atlantic Coast for the first time.
It has come. Time and time again, he led La Rochelle into the thin blue Leinster defense, shouting in the face of thousands of black and yellow-clad fans behind the flyers.
Despite the six penalties imposed by Irish chief architect Johnny Sexton, the number of attempts said it all. Three to zero for Ronan O’Gara’s, the undisputed Irish winner today.
It was an all-out nightmare for Sexton, a rare miscalculation in his streak that put La Rochelle where an attempt at close range by prostitute Pierre Bourget dragged her back into a violent fight in the last quarter.
It was a defining moment, despite a yellow card in the 64th minute by La Rochelle, Thomas Lafault suspended for stupid driving in Jamison Gibson Park.
What a victory for O’Gara, the second person after Leo Cullen of Leinster to win the title as player and coach.
Without two influential but injured New Zealanders Victor Vito and Toira Ker-Barlow, La Rochelle’s absolute bottom line was a good start to absorbing the early Blues attack and slowing the game down to a pace that suited their tall strikers.
Out of the gate, however, everything was Leinster. They rode the first formation as if emphasizing their determination to be in no way inferior, and the two Sexton pennies rode their early dominance. The magic of pinball to distributing it, which is a feature of their game when objects click on the ball in hand, was already evident.
It is thanks to La Rochelle that they responded so forcefully and impressively. Their South African winger Raymond Roll is a fast and powerful team, and when you step inside after a broken left wing, the usually reliable Hugo Keenan was defeated by the massive momentum. Ihaia West had shaky moments in scoring, but his diversion style was peachy across the board.
Leinster responded by making a substitution in Hooker after 15 minutes to send off Ireland international Ronan Kelleher. There was talk of tactical reasons at first, but he seemed to grab his arm while taking it off. Sheehan is a promising player, but La Rochelle’s scrubbers don’t look completely broken.
More duly shy game broke out. A handicap in midfield allowed Sexton to reclaim the lead with his third penalty kick, but the flop is not Leinster’s preferred position. La Rochelle had more possession and sent a fleet of trucks in the middle.
The norm, which was no longer the transient exception, was suddenly all over the place. From a neutral standpoint, this was a good thing: the organizers needed a proper competition and not an Irish move as next year’s final was due to take place in Dublin. Now they have one, with the roar of “Allez, Allez!” From the stands and bustle of Leinster under constant siege near their line.
It was often touch and go. With La Rochelle in attack, referee Wayne Barnes was told that Danny Briseau’s loose side was a bit ‘long’ in terms of his foot position and that he was guilty of the all-important team meltdown. Brysso was horrified, but Barnes was adamant. At the other end, Leinster went up, took another penalty for an offside kick in front of the sticks and – hey, woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo time – trot 12-7.
No wonder Burgaret and his captain, Gregory Aldrett, have a serious conversation with Barnes as they drive through the tunnel. Barnes has made commendable efforts to improve his French, but no matter what language is used, the difference in perception across borders in professional sports in general – and rugby in particular – remains stark.
In the back of Irish minds, it was last year’s semi-final when Leinster, after a slim first-half lead, suffered a physical blow and lost 32-23.
The tension escalated further when a penalty from West reduced the difference to two points within two minutes of the second half.
Even after Sexton’s sixth penalty, La Rochelle continued to attack, refusing only the last pass. But then came Sexton’s miscalculation, Bourget’s roaring score, and West’s second tense diversion, sparking a brilliant finale well worth setting.
Was it a classic European Cup season? Perhaps not because the Covid curse prevents its early stages. But the final was well organized and the pulse of the tournament is still strong. However, watching these two amazing teams collide, it may be some time before the English side lifts the trophy.