They saw a yellow and black tide sweep over the Atlantic coast, descending from La Rochelle to flood the Matmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux. In the semi-final of the Champions Cup, rugby players from La Rochelle were supported by 40,000 incandescent fans against the English from Exeter (47-28). A new tide awaits them, Saturday May 20, but this one will be blue. For the second year in a row, La Rochelle faces the Irish of Leinster in the final of the European Cup – which, since this year, has included certain South African franchises. However, if, in 2022, the partners of Grégory Alldritt won the title “at home” in a Velodrome stadium in Marseille, which for the occasion became a La Rochelle annex, on Saturday, it is on Irish soil that they will have to win.
“The plan is done, everything is organized. It just remains to be seen whether we are able to set it up in a stadium that will be the opposite of [celui de Bordeaux] »either “a hostile environment”, Maritimes coach Ronan O’Gara said Monday. If some La Rochelle supporters should make the trip to Dublin, the 51,000 seats in the stands of the Aviva Stadium will rumble with the cries of the “Blue Army” of the Leinstermen, hosts of the place during the season.
Like the XV of Clover, which borrows its framework, the pennant team of the province of Leinster has developed for several seasons into a formidable crushing machine. Crushed in the semi-finals (22-41), the Toulouse can testify. This season, third row teammates Josh van der Flier – named the best player in the world in 2022 – have lost just twice in 27 outings (and drawn once). And, like the Irish team, which signed the grand slam at the Six Nations Tournament, Leinster aspires to a victory at home. “We will have to take on the impossible, but we love it”summed up the captain of La Rochelle, Grégory Alldritt, after the semi-final.
“I’m not too interested in the opponent”
“The virtues, values and quality that Leinster have put into their rugby do not change. They are one of the best teams in Europe, if not the bestinsisted the Toulouse coach, Ugo Mola, after the defeat of his troops on the Irish lawn. The problem is that on their way they will meet a Munsterman and, last year, it cost them dearly. »
This man from Munster – the southern province of Ireland – who spent his playing career cultivating rivalry with the Dubliners, is Ronan O’Gara. Joined last year in the very closed circle of men who won the Champions Cup on the pitch (2006 and 2008) and on the bench – only his compatriot from Leinster, Leo Cullen, and Ugo Mola preceded him –, the always top scorer in the history of continental competition seems to have never lost the key to outsmarting his former favorite opponent.
No team in Europe has beaten the Irish province twice in a row, with the exception of La Rochelle. In the semi-finals of the competition two years ago, and last year in the final, when the men of “ROG” overtook Leinster (24-21). The coach, who studied at Racing 92 after his career – in charge of defense – before hardening up in New Zealand (at the Crusaders, during the 2018-2019 season), however refuses to make this final a personal matter. “I’m not too interested in the opponent, even if I respect himhe insisted before the meeting. I am focused on my team, on our path and what we are going to do on Saturday. »
Undefeated in Europe for almost two years
Ronan O’Gara brushed off the idea of wanting “keep title” acquired last year, to highlight the imperative of winning a new trophy, the counters being reset at the start of the season. The Irish technician, who has accompanied the rapid growth of La Rochelle since his arrival in the Atlantic city – still in the second division less than ten years ago – however believes in his troops. “We talk all the time about stifling or stopping Leinster, but stopping La Rochelle is a subject too! »he says.
Undefeated in Europe since “almost two years” (and their defeat in the final against Stade Toulousain), his men are sailing, sure of their strength towards “the lion’s den” Dublin, as shot by Ronan O’Gara, captained by international third line Grégory Alldritt, whose transformation took the Maritimes a notch above. “Greg now understands the importance of preparing well, whereas before he thought he was indestructible, explains the Irish manager. Thanks to him, the mentality of the club has changed. He is not interested in playing but in winning. »
The weekend before the final, Leinster received their biggest rival Ireland in the semi-finals of the United Rugby Championship – the competition having succeeded the Celtic League, and which brings together the Welsh, Irish, Italian, Scottish and southern provinces. -African. And Munster won by the narrowest of margins (16-15) on the lawn of Aviva Stadium. Enough to sting the teammates of the opener Ross Byrne, reassembled before playing the European final on their lawn. “The vexation of Leinster, it is not our problemevacuated the opener Antoine Hastoy, who arrived at the La Rochelle club this summer. It is their motivational lever. » The Rochelais and the Munsterman who directs them know that the Irish team can be beaten in their lair, and that their second star is at this price.