La Rochelle v Toulouse: French rivals look to change tune in final clash

Unlike the Eurovision song contest, there is no prospect of nul points and tactical voting in rugby’s grand European showpiece this weekend. Previous all-French finals have not always proved to be thrillers but, between them, Stade Rochelais and Stade Toulousain share more than enough talent to make the 2021 edition a special one.

Fear of failure can constrict on the biggest stage but in this instance different motivations are at play. Victory in the Champions Cup at Twickenham would give Toulouse the distinction of being the first club on the continent to win the title for a fifth time while La Rochelle, with Ronan O’Gara in their corner, are not entirely callow rookies. It could be every bit as close as last year’s classic between Exeter and Racing 92.

Few teams, either way, are better acquainted with the agony and ecstasy of European finals than the rugby aristocrats of Toulouse. Despite the milky way of winning stars on their jerseys, they have not lifted the trophy in more than a decade and will also be mindful of the last final they played against opponents wearing black and yellow in south-west London.

On that occasion in 2004, they were beaten by Wasps courtesy of Clément Poitrenaud’s fatal misjudgment of a bouncing ball and Rob Howley’s opportunistic score in the closing moments. Some of the rugby Toulouse played that sunny afternoon was properly vintage, but still they ended up empty handed.

This time around the scenario is not dissimilar: for Simon Shaw and Lawrence Dallaglio read the influential Will Skelton and Grégory Alldritt, key members of a La Rochelle pack well capable of making a nuisance of themselves. Assuming they can win some ball, however, Toulouse possess enough danger behind the scrum, not least Antoine Dupont and Cheslin Kolbe, to make the challengers’ first Champions’ Cup final a daunting experience.

It was only in February that O’Gara was hailing Toulouse’s international scrum-half Dupont as the best player in the world and rugby’s potential answer to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. “I think in five years’ time we’ll be talking about Dupont in the same glorified way,” said Ireland’s former out-half, long before anyone knew who this season’s two finalists would be.

This week he has been equally effusive, rightly observing that “even at Test level there are very few teams that have a Kolbe and a Dupont in the same team”. No one who has followed O’Gara’s career, however, will be fooled; the ever competitive Munster man will have a detailed plan, as was the case against Leinster in the semi-final.

Without the suspended French hooker Julian Marchand, it will not have escaped O’Gara’s attention that La Rochelle’s prospects will be greatly enhanced if they can bypass the potential threat of the super-tall Arnold twins – Richie and “Three-storey Rory” – at the lineout. La Rochelle may well prefer to kick to compete and test their opponents’ fitness around the field. Having varied the game’s tempo, as they have the ability to do, and deployed big forwards such as Skelton at close quarters, they will fancy finishing just as strongly as they did against Leinster.

Psychologically they also have the advantage of O’Gara’s extensive European back catalogue, not least Munster’s failure to beat Northampton at Twickenham in 2000 when the former fly-half left his kicking boots at home. “For me this is an opportunity for a group of players from a fantastic club to go and express themselves,” said O’Gara. “The boys here know I failed in my first Champions Cup final when I was really poor. They know it’s OK to fail, they’ve seen their coach fail plenty of times.”

Which in a curious way, O’Gara hopes, has contributed to a deeper bond between coach and player and increased the sense of “Why not us?” that has been building all season. Toulouse, with the great Jerome Kaino keen to conclude a fine career in style, possess rich pedigree but La Rochelle are unusually bright-eyed underdogs.