Champions Cup: Five takeaways from La Rochelle v Exeter Chiefs as holders power their way to Dublin final
Following La Rochelle’s 47-28 Champions Cup triumph over Exeter in Bordeaux, Planet Rugby picks out five takeaways from Sunday’s action.
The top line
La Rochelle powered their way forward to a title defence in Dublin on May 20 with one of the most impressive displays of their season as they saw off a doughty and committed Exeter Chiefs in Bordeaux.
Despite an early Sam Simmonds score, the Black and Yellows were in thundering form driven by exquisite displays from Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Antoine Hastoy at half-back and powered by a formidable display up front, where Gregory Alldritt shone all afternoon.
The power differential was marked; scrum, maul, breakdown, tackle and lineout, La Rochelle simply had far too much size and horsepower for the proud Chiefs despite a late rally of tries for Rob Baxter’s men as the game broke up towards the end.
This crushing of Premiership opposition only serves to show the enormous disparity in standard between the English and the Top 14 system, a record score posted in a semi-final and one that will set up the match in Dublin against Leinster quite wonderfully.
Talk to any top Test coach around the globe and ask them what wins matches at the highest level and they’ll reply ‘brutal domination of set-piece and gainline’ – which La Rochelle delivered to the letter of the brief.
At scrum time, with the huge figures of Uini Atonio and Will Skelton anchoring the tighthead side, La Rochelle’s loosehead Reda Wardi simply eviscerated the hapless Marcus Street, folding him like a deckchair to win four scrum penalties with many more ignored in favour of ‘play on’ by the excellent Jaco Peyper who delivered easily the most impressive display this weekend. The scrum was the platform for everything the French side did and when you have power such as they why wouldn’t you use it?
But scrum and breakdown dominance needs backline efficiency to make the most of the forwards work, and the La Rochelle backline duly obliged. Raymond Rhule added another brace of tries to his EPCR tally, showing wonderful footballing skills to dribble the ball over for one, and a wonderful understanding with Hastoy to claim a second via a pinpoint crossfield kick, something that the fly-half had tried twice in the opening two minutes without success.
In the centres, Star of the Match UJ Seuteni made the most of one of several Exeter defensive lapses to break around the midfield and scoot over after 22 minutes, whilst the brilliant Kerr-Barlow added another pair of tries to his quarter-final brace to send a loud message to Eddie Jones that he’s ready and available for the Wallabies at Rugby World Cup 2023.
With Hastoy impressive off the tee, Ronan O’Gara might consider this close to the perfect performance and he’d not be too far wrong.
Battle within a battle
A word for two brilliant number eights going head to head.
Simmonds and Alldritt are both wonderful exponents of their art – skilled, fast and as tough as nails. Next season, they’ll see even more of each other as Simmonds heads down to Montpellier for a spell in the Top 14, and based upon his individual performance, it’s exactly what his talents need with England never quite making the best use of his brilliant game.
He was head and shoulders above the rest of the Exeter pack, a rock in defence, a continual threat in attack and it was wonderful to see Alldritt and he embracing at the end, two warriors cut from the same cloth and with huge mutual respect.
Alldritt was a machine for his side – 14 thundering carries, offloads and passes aplenty and 10 mighty tackles probably don’t do his performance justice, but his 31st minute try was wonderfully opportunistic. Knowing Exeter were a regular flanker short on the blindside, once Atonio got his side up on the tighthead, Alldritt simply gassed back around the narrow channel and scooted over for a wonderful score of his hallmark intellect and awareness.
Earlier, Simmonds gave Exeter hope with a powerful drive over the line in the fifth minute, but even he had to cede to Alldritt and his cohorts in the pack. It was a wonderful battle within a battle and a microcosm of the match itself.
When facing a side of the power game of La Rochelle, it’s absolutely essential to maintain shape and focus in defence – but sadly, Chiefs were stressed so many times that their rush defence became doglegged and miss-aligned in spacing on countless occasions.
For the Seuteni try, an early rush from the 12 channel without the players coming up in a line left an enormous hole for the centre to crash through, unforgivable at amateur club level, criminal at professional level.
Too many times, Exeter tried to tackle with arms over-extended and away from their personal tackling zone; to be effective, patience is key to allow the carrier to be close enough for the tackler to unload powerfully with timing. La Rochelle got beyond the Chiefs arms time and time again into the scramble defence and with their pacy backs hungry to support, things become pretty messy as both the pressure and scores kept mounting.
However, it would be churlish to criticise further for at no point did they give up nor let down their amazing fans. The tries by Olly Woodburn and Jack Yeandle towards the end were just reward for the effort that never lacked at any point all afternoon.
They just met a world class side at the peak of their powers and there’s absolutely no shame in their loss today.
The bottom line
Both Exeter and La Rochelle have done professional rugby ‘the right way’ – building outside of the top flight of the game, entering late into their respective top flight leagues and creating a fanatical supporter base around them whose noise and vibrancy simply adds to any occasion.
La Rochelle in particular are arguably the best supported side in Europe, selling out their home games on 80 consecutive occasions up the time of writing. When they travel to meet Leinster in three weeks time, they will bring that volume and colour with them, offering key support to what is effectively an away fixture for their team.
Leinster know to their cost exactly what La Rochelle will bring and precisely the level of power they’ll face. But they showed yesterday just how much their physicality has gone up as they smashed Toulouse off the park in emphatic style. They will go in favourites for sure, but it will be a titanic clash of rugby power, with the two outstanding teams in the Champions Cup rightfully fighting for the crown.
La Rochelle’s one downer from today will be Levani Botia’s HIA – every Black and Yellow supporter, together with most neutrals, will want to see the brilliant openside back and fit, in a match that promises to be every bit as dramatic as the previous year’s thriller, literally won in the last minute by La Rochelle.
READ MORE: Champions Cup: La Rochelle steamroll Exeter Chiefs to book another final date with Leinster
The article Champions Cup: Five takeaways from La Rochelle v Exeter Chiefs as holders power their way to Dublin final appeared first on Planetrugby.com.