La Rochelle retain Champions Cup after stunning fightback

·3-min read
Try-scorer Jonathan Danty celebrates at the full-time whistle
Try-scorer Jonathan Danty celebrates at the full-time whistle

La Rochelle launched a stunning fightback from 17-0 down to edge out Leinster 27-26 and retain the Champions Cup in a dramatic final in Dublin on Saturday.

Replacement prop Georges-Henri Colombe crossed in the 72nd minute as the French side triumphed in a rerun of last season's final.

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The Irish province suffered a major blow with Michael Ala'alatoa's late red card in front of a sold-out Lansdowne Road.

"They said we couldn't do it, come to Leinster and win, but we did," La Rochelle lock Will Skelton told BT Sport.

"Leinster are a world class team and we had to dig deep. At 17-0 down, we still had the belief," added Skelton who now has four Champions Cup titles to his name -- the two with La Rochelle to go with the two he won with Saracens.

Leo Cullen's Leinster eyed joining Toulouse on a record five titles but were weakened by the absence of injured Ireland veteran Johnny Sexton, denying him a final game for the province as he watched on from the crowd.

Ex-New Zealand scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow started for La Rochelle after missing last year's win in Marseille with a hand injury.

In front of a sea of home fans, Leinster made the best start possible as hooker Dan Sheehan opened the scoring from a smart lineout move after just 41 seconds.

Ross Byrne, standing in for 37-year-old Sexton, added the conversion to make it 7-0, with the Irish supporters in full voice even with the overcast conditions in front of 51,000 in Dublin.

Their dominance continued as they jumped out into a 17-0 lead after just 12 minutes, with winger Jimmy O'Brien scoring and, just after Kerr-Barlow was shown a yellow card, Sheehan claiming his second.

La Rochelle's reaction came on 20 minutes as France centre Jonathan Danty crashed through three defenders to score from short range but the French joy was short-lived.

- Revitalised La Rochelle -

Byrne kicked two penalties to make it 23-7 after half an hour, either side of Kerr-Barlow's return from the sin-bin as Leinster captain James Ryan left the field with a head injury.

With two minutes left of the first half, Ronan O'Gara's French side cut the deficit to 23-14 as Samoa centre UJ Seuteni sliced through Leinster's defence after some trademark powerful carries from Skelton and prop Uini Atonio.

After the break, Antoine Hastoy kicked two penalties either side of a Byrne effort to make it 26-20 with half an hour to play as French fans around the ground found their voice.

Going into the closing quarter of an hour the tension mounted and Hastoy found touch with a penalty five metres from the Irish line.

With eight minutes remaining, and after countless pick and goes, Colombe bundled over for the French side.

Hastoy's conversion made it 27-26 and La Rochelle led for the first time of the enthralling encounter with Sheehan's replacement Ronan Kelleher yellow-carded for an infringement at a maul.

After Danty was sin-binned for a high tackle with six minutes to go, Byrne kicked the ball within 20 metres of the La Rochelle line.

Inches from the French line and with Leinster on top, Ala'alatoa was sent off with less than two minutes remaining for a dangerous clear-out on Colombe as Leinster ended the game with 13 men.

With 15 seconds over the 80 minutes Hastoy kicked the ball dead to end the final and give La Rochelle back-to-back title triumphs.