Didn't even beat the dawn home Sunday morning. We landed back in La Rochelle in the pouring rain before 2am to be uplifted by the heart-warming sight of 500 drowned team supporters cheering us off the flight. After a few diversions, we rolled home around six with Sunday hurt the only certainty.
And waves of nauseous self-pity.
You wake up convincing yourself to be the first and only person to have lost a cup final and truly know the ache involved. Once the thaw sets in, you get a grip and remember you’ve been around this dark place a few times before.
Although never as bad as this one. More than once Sunday the thought arose: ‘Why are you feeling this bad?’ Sick-in-the-stomach bad. The heart weighing heavy. When you’re playing, and you screw up, it’s different. You feel bad about yourself. After Saturday’s Champions Cup final defeat, I felt bad for everybody, from players to staff to the community around La Rochelle.
Truth to tell, we weren’t accurate or good enough to win the final. But I’m also a bit bent out of shape by the performance of the officials on the day. I said immediately afterwards in a tv interview that the referee Luke Pearce had a good game. On review, I now believe that wasn’t the case. You expect a certain level of decision-making on the biggest stage but it doesn’t come guaranteed and I anticipated better from Luke Pearce, Wayne Barnes, and Matthew Carley.
I’ve been thinking a bit about mentioning the officials and the decisions at all because when you lose, there’s no way to navigate the comments away from sounding sour. What purpose does it serve? It’s all in the past now. It’s done. All quite true but there’s legitimacy too in raising a point of order here so that other ‘small teams’ in the future get their due entitlements. From my biased standpoint, I felt we were refereed as ‘a small team’ in Twickenham.
Let’s go right to the end. Toulouse’s Romain Ntamack was brilliant for 79 minutes and 50 seconds, but for five seconds before the final whistle, he froze, he lost it. If he kicked that last possession out of play before the clock turns red, nine times out of 10 the referee will allow the lineout to be played. However, it should not have even got that far. He’s isolated, we’ve hands-on, Toulouse are guilty of side entry on the cleanout. The rule on that is that you’ve to come in behind the ‘gate’.
The Toulouse players are 10 yards ahead of a retreating Ntamack, so to get onside they would have to come in the ‘gate’. It was a sh*t sandwich in every respect, but it appeared like the referee was more focused on whether it was brioche or baguette. It was one Toulouse player against four of ours, there’s no possibility the ball can come out that quickly on their side with the numbers so stacked against Toulouse. They’ve fellas flying in the side — if that was La Rochelle, I’d expect to be hearing ‘get your hands away from it.’
We are a hard team to score against, whether we have 14 or 15 players and in relation to Toulouse’s first 12 points, there are question marks over each of those four penalty decisions.
The decisive sending off? No issue. But Levani Botia didn’t wake up Saturday and look out the window thinking ‘I am going to try and decapitate someone today’. This guy cares almost too much about team-mates and his people.
He’s at the club since 2014, and ever before I arrived, he had patented that explosive hit where he dislodged the ball, created a midfield scrum and give us a try-scoring moment. Those game-changing plays are called Botia Moments for a reason. Maybe I am excessively biased towards him, I love the Fijian personality. But we wouldn’t have been in that final without Levani.
It’s been the world’s longest week but amid the depression of defeat and the negativity of not getting the job done, I think we earned a bit of admiration too last Saturday. You continually ask yourself what could have been done better. The preparation was good, but it looked in the opening 20 minutes that we weren’t ourselves.
One of the big goals of this project, as it relates to the players, is to go further and deeper with expectations and big challenges, to exist and acclimatise to the rarefied air of finals all the time. There are plenty who don’t rise to that. In any professional sport, it’s doable to carve out a very good living being a mid-table player, being knocked out in the pool stages of the Champions Cup, finishing outside the play-offs and operating on a plane where you are never exposed.
The comfort zone. That is not my idea of a successful team or an ambitious club. The La Rochelle players went deep into the atmosphere where the air is thin last Saturday and they thrived. And for that, I am immensely proud of them.
But finals are for winning, not for back-slaps. Ihaia West and I have chatted this week about his goal-kicking and the disproportionate influence it has in top-level rugby. But it would be an error to expect an unproven goal scorer to be perfect off the tee in a European final. The Tuesday morning review was painful but no more painful for West or Botia than anyone else. We showed them the opportunities we didn’t take. Moments we were in control of that had nothing to do with Toulouse or the referee. These were skillset and decision-making errors.
It’s horrible but it won’t stop the group and me from coming back stronger. If we beat Pau at home tomorrow and win in Clermont a week after, we ensure a weekend off before the Top 14 semi-final, which would be beautiful timing. Otherwise, it’s five weeks on the bounce again were we to progress all the way to the final. If you were operating on a statistical norm, that means we would lose between five and seven players en route. The extra week off is crucial.
There’s no reason we should not perform against Pau who, by the way, are fighting for their lives — and this is French rugby where crazy stuff happens. Jules Plisson starts at 10, very keen to rediscover the form of a few months ago. The responsibility is on the coaches as much as Jules to do that.
Meanwhile, outside the house here, the kids are screaming and roaring on the grass. There’s all-out bloody war on an hourly basis and it’s probably time to go and dish out a red card or two. Life goes on.
The work continues.