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La Rochelle joins Toulouse in the final

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Thanks to a high-flying second half, La Rochelle got the better of Leinster (32-23) and earns the right to challenge Toulouse on May 22 at Twickenham in a Franco-French Champions Cup final.

Six years later, the Champions Cup trophy will return to France. The day after Toulouse’s success against Bordeaux-Bègles, it was an earthquake that European rugby experienced this Sunday at the Marcel-Deflandre Stadium. Four-time European champions and obvious candidates for a fifth star, Leinster were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of a La Rochelle team that did not show the slightest complex. But the stakes of a Champions Cup semi-final, combined with the demonstration of their supporters on arrival at the stadium, undoubtedly inhibited Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara’s players.

If Ross Byrne missed the opening score in the 4th minute, La Rochelle found themselves down to 14 men four minutes later, with Wian Liebenberg paying for the accumulation of fouls by his teammates in the early stages of the match. Leinster, ruthless in this kind of situation, did not wait more than a minute to take the lead. Following a quickly played penalty, Tadhg Furlong concluded a long sequence of forward play to score the first try of this semi-final. But the Rochelais did not give up and took advantage of an Irish team struggling with discipline issues to reduce the gap.

Leinster made too many gifts
On the quarter hour mark, Ihaia West unlocked Leinster’s lead before showing opportunism four minutes later with a drop-goal from 30 meters out to conclude ten minutes of shorthanded play that was far from catastrophic. In the six minutes that followed, Ross Byrne kicked two penalties to give Leinster a converted try… which the Rockies’ kicker almost wiped out in the space of four minutes following two Irish grounding fouls. Ihaia West turned the deficit into a two-point lead seven minutes after the restart, reigniting his duel with Ross Byrne, who didn’t miss the opportunity in the 53rd minute.

However, three minutes after that penalty, James Lowe was back on the bench for ten minutes after losing his footing in a ruck. Ten minutes in numerical superiority that the Rochelais exploited well. After Ihaia West’s penalty following the foul, and then a failure by the New Zealand scorer, Gregory Alldritt made the most of his team’s time. After having a first try refused by the referee, not being able to have proof that the ball had been flattened, the international third row started again.

La Rochelle managed the end of the game
Gregory Alldritt managed to break the Leinster defensive lock with 15 minutes left in the game. The Leinster players tried to get back into the game, but the Charente defense was imperious and, with six minutes to go, Will Skelton put his team one foot at Twickenham. The Australian second row came to the rescue after a well-taken carry ball to score the breakthrough try, but there was no room for complacency.

Two minutes before the siren, Ross Byrne used his speed to play Jules Plisson to get Leinster back in the game, but they needed to score twice to seal qualification. Despite the pressure, Les Rochelais more than held their own and did wonderfully to scrape in the last action, recovering a penalty just after the end of regulation time.

Without further ado, Ihaia West kicked the ball into touch and set his team free. At the end of a more than successful performance, La Rochelle defeated Leinster (32-23) and joined Toulouse for a Franco-French final on English soil, thus completing a fine European season for Top 14 clubs, with Montpellier playing in the Challenge Cup final.

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