Toulouse broke down a defensively stubborn 14-man La Rochelle side to claim a 22-17 victory in the European Challenge Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday.
Matchflow: It was a final that was played at full-blooded intensity. The battle between the two monstrous packs certainly did not disappoint, despite the lack of flowing moves in the backlines.
La Rochelle deserved their 12-9 lead at the break, especially considering that they suffered the ignominy of having the first-ever player to be red-carded in a Champions Cup final. Ronan O’Gara’s team outplayed their opponents in the first half and definitely had the better opportunities at that stage, while restricting their opponents to just a couple of entries into their own 22.
Just as they seemed to be getting into their groove, with a good period of pressure in Toulouse’s 22-metre area, Levani Botia saw the red mist. There could be no complaints as the inside centre – who was initially yellow-carded for tackling a player without retreating 10m – put in a head-high challenge on Maxime Medard without using his arms.
To their credit, La Rochelle continued to battle and after some neat touches between backs and forwards, including from Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds, took the lead through Ihaia West’s fourth penalty attempt after Rynhardt Elstadt was yellow-carded.
The battle between the flyhalves continued as Romain Ntamack briefly levelled the scores at 9-9, before West’s fifth attempt gave the underdogs the lead at half time. West missed his sixth attempt, before Ntamack drew Toulouse level again on 12-12 at the start of the second half.
Smelling blood in their hunt for the trophy, Toulouse grew into the match in the second half, but were twice denied by some excellent La Rochelle defence, including a brilliant cover tackle when Cheslin Kolbe seemed destined to score. Eventually, they broke the line and got the decisive try through Argentina centre Juan Cruz Mallia, who was making his first Champions Cup start.
La Rochelle refused to go down without a fight and gave themselves hope of a comeback when New Zealander Tawera Kerr-Barlow reached over the tryline to make it a five-point game with five minutes to play. Despite showing incredible character, O’Gara’s side would suffer disappointment as Toulouse held out to claim a record fifth title.
Bok watch: Despite ending up on the losing side, both Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule had strong outings. Both players did their best despite La Rochelle’s obvious numerical disadvantage. Rhule, in particular, made some excellent defensive reads to plug the gap in midfield. On attack, Rhule looked very threatening and his offloads were precise.
While not getting too many opportunties to work his magic, Leyds worked hard at the breakdown and made a very good cover tackle in the second half, taking a knock to the head in the process, before being replaced in the final 10 minutes.
Toulouse superstar Cheslin Kolbe didn’t touch the ball in the first half. However, that had more to do with the nature of the game and La Rochelle’s excellent defence, as they stopped the ball going to him at all costs. To his credit, he almost scored in the corner with his first touch but for a brilliant cover tackle. Kolbe saw far more action in the second half and, in typical mode, threatened whenever he got his hands on the pill.
The other Springbok involved in the final, Rynhardt Elstadt, didn’t have his best match. He conceded a penalty in the 24th minute for blatant side entry at a maul and was yellow-carded in the 31st minute for a equally blatant foul at the breakdown, playing the ball on the ground. Knocking the ball on with his first touch back on the field pretty much summed up his performance.
La Rochelle – 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Levani Botia, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Gregory Alldritt, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Romain Sazy, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 1 Dany Priso.
Subs: 16 Facundo Bosch, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Arthur Joly, 19 Thomas Lavault, 20 Wian Liebenberg, 21 Pierre Boudehent, 22 Arthur Retiere, 23 Jules Plisson.
Toulouse – 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Juan Cruz Mallia, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Matthis Lebel, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Francois Cros, 6 Rynhardt Elstadt, 5 Richie Arnold, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille.
Subs: 16 Guillaume Marchand, 17 Clement Castets, 18 David Ainu’u, 19 Joe Tekori, 20 Thibaud Flament, 21 Selevasio Tolofua, 22 Baptiste Germain, 23 Thomas Ramos.