English rugby’s era of European dominance will end at the national stadium today, as Twickenham stages a Champions Cup final which will highlight a cross-Channel shift in the balance of power.
An all-French decider between La Rochelle and Toulouse is a fitting climax to an abbreviated campaign in the blue-riband event. Premiership clubs have won the title in four of the last five years but now the top prize is heading to the Top 14 and all the signs are that it will be there to stay.
With Saracens temporarily removed from contention and Exeter’s title defence abruptly halted by Leinster in the quarter-finals, the English challenge faded in the face of Gallic might.
La Rochelle will face fellow Top 14 side Toulouse in the European Champions Cup decider
French sides made up five of the last eight and three of the semi-finalists, an indication of their increasing dominance founded on a vibrant national rugby scene and commercial success creating financial clout far beyond the reach of their home nations rivals.
The last Top 14 team to win the Champions Cup was Toulon in 2015 to make it three in a row for that multi-national force from the Cote d’Azur.
Since then, French sides have lost four out of five finals, but now they have this one all to themselves. It is an English venue and all English officials led by referee Luke Pearce, but Gallic glory in front of a modest crowd, as their own fans are unable to travel for the showpiece fixture.
La Rochelle’s followers will be particularly frustrated to miss this landmark occasion as the club have reached this stage for the first time. There was an out- pouring of civic pride as the team set off to London, with hundreds of supporters cheering them into the airport and creating a colourful send-off with flags and flares.
Twickenham will play host to the French decider as tie highlights cross-Channel power shift
The newcomers have a pedigree squad: a mixture of home-grown talent and imported class, including a number of Kiwis and South Africans.
Up front, La Rochelle come armed with an enormous pack, with prop Uini Atonio and former Saracens lock Will Skelton leading the heavyweight charge, aided and abetted by ex-All Black No 8 Victor Vito. Further back, Fiji centre Levani Botia is a freakishly powerful and gifted midfield asset.
And they have Irish know-how on their side, in the shape of head coach Ronan O’Gara. He has been preparing his team this week with the wisdom of someone who lost two finals with Munster before winning the province’s ‘Holy Grail’ at the third attempt.
Two-time champion as a player Ronan O’Gara will lead La Rochelle in hunt for European glory
La Rochelle captain Romain Sazy paid tribute to the impact and the insight offered by the former Ireland fly-half, who is establishing an impressive coaching record. ‘From his playing days, he created a strong folklore at Munster in winning two titles,’ said the lock on Friday.
‘I think what this group has benefited from is his experience, having failed in finals too, and him sharing with the group what he learnt from those experiences. I think this team has tapped into that experience and has gained a valuable insight, and his motivation has been to try and help the players not have regrets after the game, like he did. My biggest compliment for him is that he has come into a traditional attack club — not with a massive focus on defence — and helped instil a real defensive steel.
‘That, for me, is a strong indicator of a quality coach that is competent, but can also communicate effectively and instil and educate players. So, that’s what I’ve seen first-hand working with ROG.’
The scenario for Toulouse is very different. They have so much history in this tournament, as the inaugural winners who are tied with Leinster at the top of the honours list, having won the title four times. The club stand on a pedestal as aristocrats of French rugby entering a new golden age.
Antoine Dupont (left) and Roman Ntamack (right) hope to add to Toulouse’s European history
Their trophy hunt today will be orchestrated by the outstanding France half-backs, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, while Toulouse also have a decorated former All Black at No 8, Jerome Kaino, and an electric threat out wide due to the presence of World Cup-winning Springbok Cheslin Kolbe.
The diminutive wing is well aware how much this means to his club, who want five-star status.
‘I think there is a bit of expectation, from the public, from the club and obviously a bit of pressure on us as players to hopefully try and create history by getting that fifth star on to the jersey,’ he said. ‘We definitely discuss it and I think it’s there to motivate us to succeed.’
Today, one way or another, it will be a French success — with some outside assistance. The English era is ending.