A powerful second-half performance from La Rochelle was enough to overcome a more fancied Leinster side 32-23 and book their spot in the Champions Cup final.
In the glorious sunshine of the French south coast, it was the visiting Leinster side who had the better of the opening exchanges. They put the hosts under tremendous pressure as they struggled to exit from their own 22. Former Springbok winger Dillyn Leyds particularly struggled off of the kick-offs with the sunshine in his eyes causing him to spill the ball three times.
Eventually Leinster’s power told and Wiaan Liebenberg was given a yellow card after repeated offences by La Rochelle under pressure. Leinster continued their assault on the line with tighthead Tadhg Furlong eventually crossing for the opening try of the match.
La Rochelle struck back with two penalties from the boot of former New Zealand U21 star Ihia West to get within a single point. Two further penalties each from Leinster’s Ross Byrne and West saw the sides go into half-time at 12-13, Leinster retaining the slimmest of advantages.
La Rochelle came out in the second half a different side. Their discipline was vastly improved and they started to find ascendency when applying pressure to Leinster’s set piece. Following a yellow card for repeated breakdown infringements in the red zone, La Rochelle finally capitalised and crossed for their first try of the game through Gregory Alldritt.
With only minutes to go La Rochelle landed the knockout blow when Will Skelton carried three men with him over the whitewash from the back of the line out to put the game out of Leinster’s reach. The men in blue hit back in the dying moments to add some gloss to the scoresheet but the result had already been decided.
La Rochelle are first time European Champions Cup finalists and will face Toulouse at Twickenham after they beat Bordeaux to seal their own spot in the final yesterday.
Though La Rochelle’s forwards collectively performed admirably against a Leinster side packed with Irish international, one man stood (literally) head and shoulders above the rest.
Will Skelton has had a career resurgence in France and was consistently dynamic and physical in today’s game. His ability to give La Rochelle go-forward was vital as they staged their comeback in the second half. Skelton last played for the Wallabies in 2016 but such is his form that Dave Rennie may be looking to find a way to lure him back to Australia.