Skipper Gregory Alldritt led La Rochelle into a second successive European Champions Cup final against Leinster after edging Racing 20-13 in an error-ridden match on Sunday.
La Rochelle lost last year’s final against Toulouse, who went down 40-17 to Leinster on Saturday.
Racing 92, three-time Cup runners-up, received two yellow cards and were penalised 19 times in a fractured match held in the northern French city of Lens and given a symbolic kick-off by All Blacks great and former club player Dan Carter.
La Rochelle’s victory sets up an intriguing match-up in Marseille on 28 May for their Irish coach Ronan O’Gara, twice a European Cup winner with Leinster’s provincial arch-rivals Munster.
“It’s massive to be in the final a second time, it’s a great source of pride for the club, for the fans,” said O’Gara, as a player capped 128 times for Ireland and twice by the British & Irish Lions.
“We would all like to win something. It was the mentally strongest team that won today. It wasn’t a great show for the fans, but the players made huge sacrifices.”
What a way to win it 😮
Ihaia West dived over in the corner with the final play to put @staderochelais in the Final 👏
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 15, 2022
Racing captain Gael Fickou admitted his team had lost because of a “lack of pragmatism and ill-discipline”, praising La Rochelle’s ball-carrying and counter-ruck prowess.
“They were very realistic about the match, but we made too many mistakes,” Fickou said. “We were more dangerous at times, but they managed to produce on their actions.”
Racing scrumhalf Nolann Le Garrec opened the scoring with an early penalty after France No 8 Alldritt was turned over by some ferocious counter-rucking.
Flyhalf Ihaia West missed the chance to level the scores, skewing a close-range penalty. La Rochelle’s Springbok wing, Raymond Rhule, was then denied an opportunistic try before Racing’s Virimi Vakatawa notched the opening five-pointer, stepping through the defence after a good fend.
Le Garrec hit the extras to make it 10-0 after 27 minutes at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, with Racing’s La Defense Arena home in the French capital booked out by a rap concert.
West was successful with his second penalty to finally get La Rochelle rolling, and Man of the Match Alldritt offered up the perfect ending to the first half as he peeled off a five-metre scrum and crashed through Le Garrec for a much-needed try.
West missed the conversion and his off day with the boot continued as he saw a penalty come back off the post early in the second period.
Le Garrec, however, made no mistake with his second penalty and was defensively acute in holding up Pierre Bougarit as La Rochelle’s pack rumbled over the Racing tryline. But his efforts were in vain as Racing prop Cedric Gomes Sa was yellow-carded for hitting the maul from the side, referee Matthew Carley also awarding a penalty try.
With replacement hooker Camille Chat also in the sinvbin, Racing were down to 13 players and trailing for the first time in the game, 15-13. They were never to regain their momentum, Le Garrec missing two penalties in quick succession as La Rochelle also failed to curb their own ill-discipline.
Pierre Popelin saw a long-range penalty attempt fall short for La Rochelle as handling errors mounted to make for a shoddy spectacle. La Rochelle camped out in Racing territory for the final 10 minutes, West having the final word as he crashed into the corner for a try that sealed a match-up with Ireland’s best.
© Agence France-Presse