There was plenty for Ihaia West to contemplate as the fly-half savoured La Rochelle’s advancement to the Heineken Champions Cup final, not just the manner of their semi-final success over Leinster but the achievement of reaching the decider for the first time.
Sunday’s 32-23 victory on home soil at Stade Marcel Deflandre had ousted the four-time champions and though it had taken 65 minutes to score the first of La Rochelle’s two tries, there had been an air of inevitability about the French club’s rise to supremacy having conceded an eighth-minute Tadhg Furlong score against the backdrop of early indiscipline.
West’s prowess with the boot was a significant factor in the initial ascent, dragging his side back into the contest with a penalty and drop goal while flanker Wian Liebenberg was in the sin-bin and then keeping Leinster in check by matching Ross Byrne’s penalty-kicking to close the opening half just 13-12 down.
The second half had begun in similar fashion before La Rochelle’s big guns took centre stage, Gregory Alldritt, Victor Vito and man of the match Will Skelton carrying hard and punching holes in the Leinster defensive wall, keeping Ronan O’Gara’s side on the front foot until the dam finally broke in the final quarter, West on hand to this time add conversions to the scoreboard and see his team into an all-French final against Top 14 title rivals Toulouse at Twickenham on May 22.
“It’s the first time for the club in the Champions Cup semi-final and against a team like Leinster that has won it four times, it’s definitely a massive, massive win, a massive moment for the club,” the former New Zealand Maori said.
The way West chipped away at Leinster’s lead in that first half and built the foundation for his team through scoreboard pressure to assume control of the contest was reminiscent of O’Gara the Munster general while La Rochelle’s organisation in defence pointed to the head coach’s defensive acumen.
“We’ve definitely talked about that (scoreboard pressure) as a whole team,” West said, “When we get into the opposition’s attacking zone we come away with three, five, seven points, so every time we enter the attacking zone we want to come away with some points.”
Skelton’s presence was a huge help also. A major contributor to Saracens’ 2019 Champions Cup final win over Leinster in Newcastle, the former Wallaby’s performance for La Rochelle on Sunday matched his giant 6ft 7ins, 19st 9lbs frame.
“He’s a machine, just look at the size of him,” West said, “but the way he gets around the field, the way he carries that size and weight is awesome.
“When he gets us front-foot ball, it’s just so much easier to play off and also defensively as well, he’s awesome with our lineout defence, being able to stop other teams’ mauls and in European rugby that’s massive and goes a long way to helping your defence. He’s a big part of our team.”