They gathered in their thousands, droves upon droves of the Rochelais chorus thronged in the port city to welcome their conquering travellers home. Ronan O’Gara’s European champions touched down in the early hours of Sunday morning to a typically fervent reception, the thump of the drums and the glare of the flares ensuring any bleary eyes cleared quickly.
The celebrations were more than merited. To go back-to-back as Champions Cup winners would have been achievement enough; to turn over Leinster on their own patch having been three scores down inside 12 minutes marks this La Rochelle team out as one of the great club sides.
“We got the message early in the week that everyone was saying this was going to be a walkover for Leinster,” wing Dillyn Leyds said afterwards, explaining how a perceived lack of respect had driven the visitors on. “We didn’t feel like we got the respect we deserved. After all, we were the defending champions. We are unbeaten for two years now in the Champions Cup.
“It’s about time people show some respect. Everyone always talks about Leinster and how you are going to stop Leinster – no one asked the question of how to stop La Rochelle.”
Perhaps it was not an ideal look for the competition that Leinster did not have to leave Dublin in the knockout rounds, but a final date at home led to a truly special atmosphere on Saturday evening, almost football-like in its partisan nature. In that brilliant first 15 minutes from Leinster it felt like a day where the blue waves would overwhelm on and off the pitch, but by the end, it was the French horns that were tooting.
It was the sort of evening on which this sport thrives and an occasion it perhaps needed. It is easy to feel negative about club rugby at the moment. In England, the domestic game is in crisis, with increasingly grim portents emerging out of London Irish, while even this once great competition has lost some of its lustre.
The revamped Champions Cup format employed over the last couple of years has proved tough to follow. While the injection of the South African sides has enlivened it this year, figuring out the right structure to build engagement, rivalry and competitiveness in the future was the key topic of conversation in a busy few days of Dublin meetings.
Among those in town was Simon Massie-Taylor, chief executive of Premiership Rugby, with a key question how qualification might be revamped if his competition, as now feels depressingly likely, becomes a ten-team league. Could the Champions Cup still be described as the pinnacle of the sport if 80% of the English top flight makes it in?
— Stade Rochelais (@staderochelais) May 21, 2023
Certainly what was again made clear on Saturday evening was the gap that any Premiership pretenders have to close to compete with these two. This was as close to Test match intensity as club rugby gets, helped by that brilliant crowd. On the pitch, the relentless physicality was accentuated by a real sense of bad blood between now familiar foes, with a half-time scuffle in the tunnel between some key protagonists only heightening the post-interval niggle.
Leinster picked a side containing so many of Ireland’s grand slammers but it was little surprise to see La Rochelle match them. “We can’t play Test games, but we feel we have a Test team,” said Ronan O’Gara afterwards, running through the entirety of his squad to highlight their international credentials.
Up front, the Irishman has at his disposal four genuinely unique individuals: Uini Atonio, Will Skelton, Levani Botia and Gregory Alldritt, who have come together wonderfully in the Atlantic coast melting pot. “We don’t have any bad eggs,” was O’Gara’s explanation when asked how he had forged such spirit among his cosmopolitan bunch. “Which is amazing for French rugby.”
Also on the agenda for this weekend’s meetings was some thought to where EPCR might take their two showpiece finals in the future beyond next year’s trip to Tottenham. There are understood to be plenty of interested bidders, which is understandable if a spectacle like Saturday can be consistently delivered. A visit to the USA is becoming an increasingly strong possibility, while South Africa’s integration would be further completed by hosting a final. Again targeting a city rich in sporting culture but perhaps not recognised as a traditional rugby destination, as in Bilbao in 2018, could also prove an appealing option.
There may be problems to solve but Saturday evening in Dublin provided much-needed optimism for a bright future. A great rugby city coming alive for a final laden with narrative, drama and stars – it is clearer than ever there is something here to treasure and celebrate.
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