La Rochelle became the fifth team to win back-to-back European Champions Cups on Saturday when they clawed back a 17-point deficit to beat Leinster 27-26 at the Aviva Stadium in another breathless final between the sides.
The Irish province made a dream start and were 17-0 up after 11 minutes thanks to a try from Jimmy O’Brien and two for Dan Sheehan but the defending champions managed to cut the halftime deficit to nine thanks to tries from centres Jonathan Danty and UJ Seuteni.
The ferocious first 40 minute pace turned into a game of high tension as soon as the second half began and the pendulum swung decisively La Rochelle’s way nine minutes from time when Antoine Hastoy converted a Georges Henri Colombe try.
“Ecstatic. That’s as good as it gets in the club game,” La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara, the scourge of Leinster on many occasions as a Munster player, said in a pitchside interview.
“17-0 down, throw the copy book away, we were getting blitzed.”
Having failed to score a try 12 months ago as La Rochelle’s won their maiden title, it took Leinster just 41 seconds to do so this time out as a perfect lineout decoy move allowed Jack Conan to sprint through and return the ball to hooker Sheehan to cross over.
O’Brien added a second with the next attack and one minute after La Rochelle scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow was sin-binned, his opposite number, Jamison Gibson-Park, found Sheehan in the corner with a beautiful blindside looped pass to the delight of the partisan crowd.
If their opponents were stunned, they hid it well and found a crucial, quick response while still down to 14 men as their wrecking ball of a centre Danty bounced off Garry Ringrose for fun to touch down by the posts.
The La Rochelle team celebrate after lifting the Champions Cup Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Ross Byrne, facing the biggest test of his stint at club and international level standing in for the injured Johnny Sexton, added two penalties but the defending champions continued to slowly work their way into the game and Seuteni scored a well worked try just before the break.
After Hastoy narrowed the gap further with two penalties to Byrne’s one early in the second half, errors began to creep into a nervy Leinster, particularly from the boot of Gibson-Park and James Lowe, to put the four-time winners firmly on the backfoot.
The pressure became relentless and with O’Gara’s side camped on his old Leinster rival’s line, replacement prop Colombe barrelled over. To make matters worse for Leinster, Ronan Kelleher was sin binned in the same breath.
Leinster went straight back up the other end and a yellow card for Danty opened the door but it was slammed shut by a Michael Ala’alatoa red card as La Rochelle joined Saracens, Toulon, Leicester and Leinster in successfully defending their title.
For Leinster, it was a third loss in the last five finals as their bid to join Toulouse as five-time winners goes on.
“It’s heartbreaking. Years of work goes into getting a team that’s good enough to get here and it’s incredibly disappointing,” Leinster’s Josh van der Flier said.