La Rochelle’s victory flies in the face of everything that is happening in French and indeed European rugby where the focus has switched to clubs with big money in the large urban cities.
The days of the likes of Colomiers, Brive, Perpignan and Biarritz, all from relatively small urban areas, reaching European finals seemed to be an end. The emergence of the likes of Lyon, Challenge Cup winners on Friday night, Bordeaux and Montpellier, is more in keeping with the trend in France in recent years where most of the Top 14 sides come from the big cities.
La Rochelle, promoted from Pro D2 in 2014, have defied all that. They don’t have a sugar-daddy, they are like one of the old traditional clubs. The port town is a popular holiday resort, La Rochelle has a rich maritime history and while it has a long rugby tradition, they had never won a trophy before this. They have packed Stade Marcel Deflandre for the last few years since they got up into the top flight.
It's an old traditional French stadium, surrounded by flats and houses and the narrow roads have to be closed on matchdays to allow fans to walk to the ground.
They will be walking taller from now, not least as they are defying every other trend in professional rugby at the moment.
The Heineken Champions Cup has always been difficult to win but it won’t be lost on Leinster as they continue their search for a fifth star that the task is about to get a whole lot more difficult from next season.
The return of the final to the Aviva Stadium next season for the first time since Toulon beat Saracens in 2013 is the perfect incentive for Leinster to regroup and have a crack at it again next year.
But the arrival of the big South African teams — the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks have qualified for next season’s Champions Cup — certainly ups the ante. Between Covid and other things, it took the South African clubs some time to adjust to the inaugural URC, but we have seen their strength in recent weeks and likely to a lot more potency in the next few weeks as three of them bid to win the league.
You can’t help but think that the road for Leinster and all other pretenders to the crown is about to get longer and a tad more steep.
All the more to regret letting this one slip from their grasp.
Not wishing to plough on with the negativity, but Leinster’s capitulation doesn’t augur well for the World Cup in France next year, does it? Most of the Irish side will come from Leinster and the manner in which so many key players and moves were negated by a La Rochelle team not more than a wet week competing at this level, won’t send the confidence levels soaring as they try to finally get past the quarter-final stage of the RWC.
Unless Scotland do a number on Ireland — and that certainly can’t be ruled out — Andy Farrell’s men will advance to a quarter-final showdown against either France or New Zealand. To beat either of those Ireland are going to need at least a dozen players performing at the very top of their game. Was their one Leinster player who did that in this final? Hard to find and what was really scary was the way the game just seemed to drift past the likes of James Lowe, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris and several others. In a way, it was amazing that they were leading going into the home stretch given that so many of their key performers were operating at a few notches below what you would normally bank on them delivering.