La Rochelle stun Leinster to retain Heineken Champions Cup
Stade Rochelais retained the Heineken Champions Cup in dramatic fashion in Dublin on Saturday as they recovered from 17 points down to beat Leinster Rugby 27-26.
Leinster looked on course for a record-equalling fifth crown when Dan Sheehan (2) and Jimmy O’Brien crossed inside the first quarter of an hour.
But they could only add three Ross Byrne penalties from that point and La Rochelle battled their way back into the contest in an incredible and gripping turnaround.
Jonathan Danty, UJ Seuteni and Georges Henri Colombe all went over for the TOP 14 side, in addition to 12 points from the boot of Antoine Hastoy.
51,711 fans contributed to a pulsating atmosphere inside the Aviva Stadium, and the game delivered on all its promise as the battle for glory between two of the best sides on the planet went down to the wire.
Leinster sent their supporters into delirium when they grabbed three tries in a sensational start.
Sheehan was over inside the first minute as a brilliant lineout move released Jack Conan, allowing the No.8 to send his hooker clear down the right, fly-half Byrne adding the extras.
O’Brien would then cross on five minutes amid relentless Leinster pressure, the wing finishing out wide after a perfectly timed pass by Byrne, whose conversion drifted just wide.
It went from bad to worse for La Rochelle when scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow was shown yellow for stopping a quick tap, with Sheehan splashing over again moments later after another slick Leinster move.
Byrne was off target with the conversion again, though, and La Rochelle found a foothold in the game and notched their first try while still down to 14 men, centre Danty crashing over in a powerful finish, fly-half Hastoy’s extras reducing the margin to 10 points.
Momentum swung back in Leinster’s favour momentarily after Kerr-Barlow returned, and allowed Byrne to slot two penalties before the half hour mark, though the Irish province would lose captain James Ryan to injury.
But La Rochelle ended the first half in the ascendancy and when centre Seuteni glided across unchallenged and Hastoy converted again, the gap was down to just nine points.
The nerves began to set in following the restart as two Hastoy penalties either side of one from Byrne saw La Rochelle move to within six points by 49 minutes.
Ronan O’Gara’s side continued to pile on the pressure, but it wasn’t until 71 minutes that they found their decisive third try, replacement prop Colombe squeezing over from close range to stun the Dublin crowd.
Hastoy converted to hand La Rochelle the lead, and Leinster replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher was sin-binned for an accumulation of offences to leave the Irish province with a monumental task to turn things back around.
The final nine minutes were electrifying, with Danty then shown yellow for a high shot on Leinster flanker Caelan Doris, boosting their hopes of a late score.
But replacement prop Michael Ala’alatoa sent off for an illegal clear-out close to the La Rochelle line with two minutes to play, all but ending Leinster’s dreams of a fifth star for another year.
La Rochelle would see the game out to make it successive Heineken Champions Cup crowns, captain Grégory Alldritt scooping the 2023 EPCR Player of the Year award.