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Under the magnificent curved roof of this spectacular stadium, the question was whether Leinster could become the modern masters of the European game. They have been on a mission to secure a record fifth Champions Cup title for some time and for almost 79 minutes the stage seemed set to complete their grand design.

And then, in the end, everything fell apart. After what seemed like several years of concerted forward pressure from La Rochelle, the ball landed in the hands of their reserve scrum-half Arthur Retière, one of the smaller men on the pitch. He initially stumbled but regained his footing and stretched just enough to touch the line and deliver the ultimate European prize to the Atlantic coast for the first time.

In truth, it was coming. Time and time again, La Rochelle had rolled over Leinster’s thin blue defensive line, roaring through the thousands of fans dressed in black and yellow behind the posts. In the end, despite six penalties from Irish chief architect Johnny Sexton, the number of tries said it all. Three-0 for the team coached by Ronan O’Gara, the undisputed Irish winner of the day. It was a nightmare for Sexton, a rare misjudgment on his own line having put La Rochelle in the position from which a close-range try from their hooker Pierre Bourgarit had brought them back in a last-quarter dogfight . It was to prove to be a crucial moment, despite the 64th-minute sin of La Rochelle lock Thomas Lavault for a false move on Jamison Gibson-Park.

And what a triumph it was for O’Gara, now only the second person after Leo Cullen of Leinster to win the title as a player and head coach. There was a respectful post-game handshake with Sexton, but that result will further polish an increasingly fine-grained coaching resume. “Without any semblance of arrogance, we honestly thought we were going to win today,” O’Gara said afterwards. “There was one of the two guys sulking at 12-7 at halftime, but we knew we were a team in the second half. We knew the last 20 minutes were where we could get them.

Stripped of possession and with an unbalanced tackle against them, Leinster also had to absorb the brutal truth that after the first 10 minutes they rarely threatened to score a try. “Maybe we should have been more aggressive at times and experimented,” admitted a dejected Sexton afterwards. “But everyone is an expert in recoil. A lot of things didn’t go our way in the last 30 minutes when we had control of the game. It’s hard to take. »

If only Leinster could have continued as they started. They drove their first lineout, clearly eager to score a physical point, and were rewarded with the first two penalties from Sexton. The pinball magic of their cast when things click with the ball in hand was temptingly on display.

But it was a team from La Rochelle ready to be patient and soon enough they fought back hard. Their South African winger Raymond Rhule is a quick and solid unit and the generally reliable Hugo Keenan has been beaten for his dynamic pace. Ihaia West had his shaky shooting moments, but his wide-angle conversion was a peach.

Leinster responded by switching hookers after just 15 minutes, with their Ireland international Ronan Kelleher clutching their arm as he walked off. Dan Sheehan is a very promising player but La Rochelle’s tight scrummagers didn’t look quite broken.

A much more cagier game then developed. Scrappy is not Leinster’s favorite frame and increasingly confident La Rochelle have started sending a fleet of thundering heavy-duty trucks through the middle. Ex-Springbok Rhule, no longer the fleeting exception, was suddenly everywhere.

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From a neutral point of view, this was great news: the organizers needed a real competition rather than an Irish procession, with next year’s final already scheduled for Dublin. And now they had one, with roars of ‘Come on, come on!’ from the stands and Leinster under a sustained siege near their own line.

Sometimes they barely held on. There was a particularly key moment when, with La Rochelle in attack, referee Wayne Barnes was advised to penalize Dany Priso from the head-down side for a fall. Priso was appalled but Barnes was adamant. At the other end, Leinster were awarded another offside penalty in front of the sticks. They looked happy enough as they trotted through the interval with a five-point pad.

However, last year’s semi-final marked the Irish spirits when, after narrowly leading at half-time, Leinster ended up physically demolished and lost 32-23. When a West penalty reduced the margin to just two points in as many minutes in the second half, the air of tension escalated yet again.

Even after Sexton’s sixth penalty, La Rochelle continued to sink forward, with only the final pass refusing to stick. But then came Sexton’s failure to clear his lines after a missed drop-goal attempt, Bourgarit’s snarling maul score and West’s nerveless second conversion, setting up a soaring finish worthy of the setting.

Has it been a vintage European Champions Cup season overall? Maybe not, with the curse of Covid delaying its early stages. But the final went well and, in general, the pace of the tournament remains strong. Although, watching these two formidable teams crash into each other, it might be a while before an English team lifts the trophy.

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