It felt like a volcano erupted in the Aviva Stadium. An explosion of yellow and black lava that flooded the pitch to destroy what was almost a defining day in Leinster’s dynasty.
There was wreckage across the pitch, victims of a devastatingly physical 80 minutes. Leinster had built up a 17-0 lead but it was burnt down by a breath-taking La Rochelle comeback, as Ronan O’Gara stepped out of the rubble to be crowned king of Europe.
You could trawl through all the archives of club rugby and struggle to find a game of such intensity. The likes of Will Skelton and Gregory Aldritt fought with such physicality that they swallowed up a team of Irish internationals who are fancied to win the World Cup.
Outside this giant stadium, on Shelbourne Road, Leinster’s sponsors had plastered the street with campaigns about their bid to stitch a fifth European star onto the blue jersey. That is how the Stuart Lancaster and Johnny Sexton era was supposed to end. O’Gara had other ideas.
It was a game worthy of the biggest stage. La Rochelle would have beaten most national teams with their show of power. It was loaded with fight and drama, from the moment Gregory Aldritt called out James Ryan for showing a lack of respect at the captain’s coin toss.
La Rochelle celebrate after completing the biggest comeback in Champions Cup final history
La Rochelle staged a brilliant fightback that was capped by Georges-Henri Colombe’s late try
Terse words were exchanged between Sean O’Brien and O’Gara in the tunnel at half-time and Sexton made his thoughts known to referee Jaco Peyper at the final whistle.
For 12 minutes, Leinster lived up to their billing and more. They produced one of the greatest openings ever seen, transporting their fans into a fantasy land with three quick tries. Dan Sheehan scored after 41 seconds, capitalising on a trick play at the lineout, creating a hole by shifting La Rochelle’s lifting pod.
Five minutes later, following a massive 50-22 from James Lowe, Leinster scored again. They fired players into the ruck like human kamikazes, using miss passes and dummy runners to narrow the defence, before Jimmy O’Brien scored on the wing.
The breakdown was like a mosh pit. Leinster’s defence was ferocious, tackling runners in twos and threes, swarming around ankles like a pack of jacked-up hyenas. A team possessed. With Tawera Kerr-Barlow in the sin-bin, his opposite man Jamison Gibson-Park’s threw a miss pass to take out five defenders, allowing Sheehan to put Leinster 17-0 up after 11 minutes.
La Rochelle clung on by their giant fingertips. Sexton’s understudy, Ross Byrne, missed two conversions and one more score could have been fatal. But there was no sense of panic.
‘We were on the ropes, big time,’ said O’Gara. ‘We’d been steamrolled. Within 11 minutes, it’s 17-0 so you’re not a long way from getting hosed. It would have been easy to jump ship but they did the opposite. good. We’ve got data for everything but we don’t have data for character.’
A turnover from Levani Botia and a knock-on from Lowe helped them get back into the fight. The way O’Gara’s side flexed their muscle was reminiscent of the Springboks. Jonathan Danty bounced off Garry Ringrose for a desperately needed score, slowly taking charge of the territory and possession after two penalties from Byrne.
Just before the break, UJ Seuteni went through a gap to narrow the deficit in the highest-scoring half in Champions Cup history. Things boiled over in the tunnel and the travelling team came back out with a point to prove.
‘Obviously Leinster were the home team in terms of accommodation for the families, post-match gigs,’ said O’Gara, when asked about Aldritt’s comments that he felt disrespected. ‘We couldn’t get a room in this place. It’s disappointing on that front. We’ve got to accept that we’re seen as the little teams, but that’s about to change.’
One by one, Leinster fans slowly woke up from their fantasy land. Their star-chasing side become consumed by nerves, fluffing their exit plays and growing fatigued from their first-half efforts. Antoine Hastoy kicked a couple of penalties and suddenly the 17-point lead was reduced to one score. The ruck speed swung in La Rochelle’s favour as they launched their heavyweight carriers, swarming the pitch like a cloud of volcanic ash.
La Rochelle broke Leinster’s hearts for the second year running in a pulsating final in Dublin
Leinster’s 17-0 lead that had been built up was burned down in front of them by the French side
The size and weight of the French size saw Leinster’s resistance break late in the fixture
Leinster rode their luck, conceding penalties at the breakdown as they attempted to absorb the pressure.
But after 72 minutes, the resistance broke, crippled by the size and weight of their opponents’ maul. When the ball squirted out the back of a ruck, Georges-Henri Colombe pounced to snatch the lead for the first time after 72 minutes.
Ronan Kelleher was sinbinned but so was Danty. There was a chance to strike back but a late penalty was just out of range for Bryne, so Leinster kicked for the corner.
They got agonisingly close but play was stopped when Michael Ala’alatoa flew into the ruck for a clear-out worthy of a red card. Victory belonged to La Rochelle, Leinster were left broken.
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