European rugby champion, La Rochelle invites itself to the table of the big ones



A giant leap. By overthrowing the great favorites of Leinster in the final moments of the match (24-21), Stade Rochelais won the European Cup, the most distinguished competition in European rugby, at the same time as the first major trophy in its history, Saturday May 28, in Marseille. The Maritime club has continued to progress since its rise eight years ago in the Top 14, the French first division championship. Since then, they have played three finals: first in the European Challenge in 2019, in the Top 14, then in the European Cup last season against Stade Toulouse. Without success so far.

First thwarted by their own indiscipline (13 penalties conceded) and the steamroller Leinster have trained this campaign – dispatching Montpellier (89-7) in the group stage and Toulouse (40-17) in the previous round –, the Yellow and Black finally “conjure fate”according to their emblematic third line Romain Sazy, thanks to a try from substitute Arthur Retière, who came to conclude the last charge one minute from the final whistle (79e).

“On the last sequence, when we find ourselves in front of our bend (of supporters)I can assure you that it carries a lot. The supporters are as much European champions as we are », reported in a press conference Grégory Alldritt, the captain of the Rochelais, reduced to 14 for ten minutes at the end of the game, but pushed by the public of the Vélodrome stadium won over to their cause. “We really thought we were going to win. I told the players. They sometimes thought I was crazy, with my obsession for the haircut, but hey… We’re champions! », his trainer, Ronan O’Gara, curled up at the same time.

The O’Gara method

This obsession for victory, the Irishman owes it first to his playing career, he who still holds the record for matches played (110) and points scored (1,365) in the European Cup, raised twice, in 2006 and 2008 under the tunic of Munster – the Celtic rival of Leinster. He remains since his retirement from the field, nine years ago, the best scorer of the XV of Clover. The same requirement guided him when he became assistant coach of Racing 92, winning the title of French champion in 2016, before leaving to redo his lines in New Zealand.

Back in the Top 14 in La Rochelle at the start of the 2019 school year, O’Gara won the trust of the highly respected Vincent Merling, president at the helm for thirty years in Charente-Maritime, to occupy the bench as head coach and inherit a team with long teeth but who continues to miss the essential: “He often says that playing a final is not interesting, what matters is to lift the trophy”, confided the third row from La Rochelle Wiaan Liebenberg in a press conference, before the final on Saturday.

La Rochelle, 4th French European champion

After a “breathtaking final”, as Emmanuel Macron rejoiced on Twitter, Ronan O’Gara joined Toulouse coach Ugo Mola (1996, 2021) and his Leinster counterpart, Leo Cullen (2009, 2011, 2012, 2018), all three crowned European champion as a player then as a coach. This success in his pocket, the Irishman also deprives his former rival Leinster from joining Toulouse and its five European Cups as the most successful club in the competition. The Rochelais become the fourth French formation crowned at this level, and bring a little more force to the tricolor wind which is currently blowing on ovality in Europe, after the coronation last spring of an undefeated XV of France at the Tournament. of the six nations – you had to go back twelve years to find such a performance – or that of the Lyonnais on Toulon, Friday May 27, in the final of the European Challenge (30-12).

Of the last ten winners of the great European Cup, five were French, joining England at the head of the most crowned countries since the creation of the competition in 1996. Since the round of 16, the Rochelais had not had to face only clubs from the Top 14, overcoming Bordeaux, Montpellier and then Racing 92. “I can take a lifelong vacation today!” », ironically Ronan O’Gara after the final. There is no doubt that they will be short and studious to acculturate the Rochelais now to good habits, after having installed them this year at the table of the greats.

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