The European Champions Cup final has a sense of deja vu as for the first time in the competition’s history with the same two teams contesting the showpiece in back-to-back seasons.
Leinster and La Rochelle played out a thrilling final 12 months ago in the blistering heat of Marseille, with the French outfit securing their first Champions Cup title with a 24-21 success.
The two forces of European rugby are now gearing up to do battle once more, this time at Leinster’s second home, the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Leinster will hope home advantage can play a big part in them claiming a record-equalling fifth Champions Cup, and they are 1/3 favourites to seal their first European title since 2018.
But 12/5 underdogs La Rochelle have proven they can match Leinster’s power and the Maritimes are more than capable of springing a surprise.
|What||Leinster v La Rochelle - European Champions Cup final|
|Where||Aviva Stadium, Dublin|
|When||16:45, Saturday May 20th|
|How to watch||ITV1 & BT Sport 2|
|Odds||Leinster 1/3, Tie 25/1, La Rochelle 12/5|
Since losing to La Rochelle last year, this date has been circled in Leinster’s diary. Opportunities to avenge painful losses, in a game you were expected to win, on home soil don’t come around very often.
Director of rugby Stuart Lancaster has made the Champions Cup the priority this season, often keeping his Ireland superstars out of United Rugby Championship action in order to be fresh for Europe.
Leinster’s strength in depth means they’ve been able to dominate on two fronts comfortably, winning 24 of their 27 matches in all competitions this season.
However, their URC-Champions Cup double dreams were ended last weekend when a side missing seven Irish Grand Slam winners was beaten at the Aviva Stadium by Munster in the semi-finals of the URC play-offs.
And having missed out on silverware entirely last year, the pressure is now on Leinster to deliver European glory.
Leinster’s performances in the Champions Cup this season suggest La Rochelle can expect a positive response from their opponents following last week’s defeat.
The Dublin-based outfit have brushed aside everyone they’ve come up against in Europe this season with their smallest winning margin being 15 points.
Racing 92 and Gloucester were blown away in the pool stages before a competitive last-16 win over Ulster. Leinster then stuck 55 points on English champions Leicester in the quarter-finals before tearing Toulouse to shreds in the semi-finals.
Leinster have firmly lived up to their billing as tournament favourites and top the stats charts when it comes to most points (310), tries (43), carries (929) and clean breaks (62) in the Champions Cup.
They’ve been boosted by Robbie Henshaw, Cian Healy and Ronan Kelleher coming through last week’s semi-final unscathed on their returns from injury, while last season’s Champions Cup top tryscorer James Lowe is also available after a spell on the sidelines.
However, there is one glaring absence from the Leinster squad and that’s skipper Johnny Sexton. The four-time Champions Cup winner, who is retiring at the end of the campaign, is sidelined with a groin injury and his experience in a big-match environment will be sorely missed.
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Ross Byrne will fill in for Sexton in an intriguing fly-half matchup against the Champions Cup’s top point-scorer Antoine Hastoy, who scored 27 of his 81 points in La Rochelle's win over Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in the pool stages.
La Rochelle’s run to the final wasn’t quite as impressive as Leinster’s but they still hold a 100 per cent record, beating Ulster and Northampton twice in the pool stages. Gloucester gave them a scare in the last-16 before they eased past Saracens and Exeter in the quarters and semi-finals.
Munster hero turned La Rochelle boss Ronan O’Gara has transformed the fortunes of his side, who had got close to European glory in the past but failed to get over the line, losing the 2021 final to Toulouse.
That’s all changed and they arrive in Dublin with an experienced and healthy squad with Jonathan Danty, Yoan Tanga and Levani Botia making successful returns from injury in last week’s loss to Montpellier.
France centre Danty’s presence in midfield will be key to La Rochelle’s chances, while Botia joins Gregory Alldritt in a formidable back-row that’s won more turnovers than any other side in the Champions Cup this season.
The back-row makes up part of a powerful La Rochelle pack, one that will back itself to successfully match Leinster’s own collection of impressive forwards.
La Rochelle have arguably improved since last season’s Champions Cup final and are positioned to become only the third French team in history, after Toulouse and Toulon, to complete a league-European double.
Leinster haven’t stood still either and, roared on by a partisan Dublin crowd, they’ll be tough to stop.
However, La Rochelle showed what they were made of last year and this final looks tighter than the handicap of eight points suggests, with the French underdogs 1/1 to cover the handicap.
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