Onan O’Gara has devised a coaching masterclass to inspire La Rochelle to a 24-21 Heineken Champions Cup final victory over four-time champions Leinster at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille.
With the massive underdogs entering the final, La Rochelle snatched victory from death when substitute scrum-half Arthur Retiere smashed his way past a ruck down the Leinster line to put his side ahead with just 17 seconds left. to play.
Up stepped up Ihaia West to add their third conversion of the game and the French side overcame their defeat in the final a year earlier and became just the 13th team to win the European title.
While Leo Cullen was able to send in the same starting XV he used to beat Leicester and Toulouse in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, his counterpart O’Gara had to mend his squad after losing two highly influential All Blacks by injury – third row Victo Vito and scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Chasing a record fifth title, Leinster started well and forced La Rochelle to concede five penalties in the first seven minutes.
This allowed Johnny Sexton to give Leinster a six-point lead with successful penalties in the fourth and ninth minutes.
England referee Wayne Barnes spoke to Australian giant Will Skelton between those two scores from Sexton, telling him to calm down, and La Rochelle responded by bringing up the first try of the game.
After keeping the ball moving, they went down the narrow side of a ruck nearly halfway through and Dillyn Leyds managed to free his arms in a tackle and sent fellow Springbok Raymond Rhule weaving towards the line at 30 meters for an excellent try.
West added the extras and with 10 minutes on the clock the underdogs were ahead. This score calmed O’Gara’s men and they dominated long periods with 60% possession.
They had chances to score more tries but Leinster’s defense remained firm and the only other score of the first half was two more penalties from Sexton which took his side to a 12 lead. -7.
The second half began with a penalty in front of the La Rochelle posts as soon as the restart and West struck on goal to reduce the gap to two points.
But Sexton took his penalty tally to six as he continued to punish La Rochelle’s indiscretions, but the French underdogs fought back with a second try on a driving lineout, scored by the excellent Pierre Bourgarit.
That took them within a point before Sexton’s substitute Ross Byrne extended the lead to four points with his side’s seventh penalty 15 minutes from time.
After that, La Rochelle besieged the Leinster line and Retiere finally came through with the score that won his club their first major title in the death.