The iconic Stade Vélodrome is the cathedral for the continental showpieces. Up first is the all-French European Challenge Cup final between Lyon and Toulon on Friday.
Heroes will be born and legacies cemented on Saturday as Leinster and La Rochelle lock horns in the European Champions Cup final.
Lyon v Toulon
Saturday, 27 May – 21:00
Lyon have broken new ground, putting together an unbeaten run to reach their first Challenge Cup final. Gloucester (19-13), the Dragons (41-28), USAP (37-6), and Benetton (25-10) were dealt with in the pool stages and the Worcester Warriors (31-17) bent the knee in the Round of 16.
From there, they fought back from 14 points down to defeat the Glasgow Warriors 35-27 in the last eight and overcame an 8-3 half-time deficit to edge the Wasps 20-18 in the semi-finals.
Toulon have won the crown jewel of European club rugby, the Champions Cup, on three occasions, but they’re yet to clinch the Challenge Cup. This is their fourth shot at the silverware, having fallen short in the 2010, 2012 and 2020 finals.
Wins over Zebre (28-14), the Worcester Warriors (34-23) and the Newcastle Falcons (28-0 Covid cancellation) saw them top Pool A despite suffering a 20-17 loss to Biarritz. They were too good for Benetton in the Round of 16, beating the Italians 36-17, edged London Irish 19-18 in the quarter-finals and saw off Saracens 25-16 in the semis.
Lyon are lethal if they’re allowed to get into their groove. Flyhalf Leo Berdeu boasts the most points (61) and clean breaks (7) of the tournament, Georgian wing Davit Niniashvili has been superb and All Black Charlie Ngatai’s a cool head in the midfield.
Toulon are more balanced. Driven by France scrumhalf Baptiste Serin and the departing Louis Carbonel, they have a skilful backline and a big pack. It’s up front where they’ll have what I expect will be a decisive advantage with an all-international front row, Eben Etzebeth as enforcer, and a loose trio of Cornell du Preez, captain Charles Ollivon and Italian icon Sergio Parisse.
Leinster v La Rochelle
Sunday, 28 May – 17:45
It’s the stuff of dreams. The apex of the European game, and the 2021-2022 final is a fascinating clash worthy of the grandest stage. It’s Leinster’s legacy versus La Rochelle’s rapidly growing reputation.
Leinster are looking to equal Toulouse’s record five Champions Cup titles, while La Rochelle are determined to secure their maiden European crown after falling at the final hurdle last year.
A red card dashed their dreams in the 2020-2021 decider as Levani Botia was sent off for a high tackle in the 27th minute. Despite a spirited effort, they were left with the despair of what could’ve been as they succumbed 22-17 to Toulouse at Twickenham.
Ronan O’Gara’s charges are hell-bent on taking the lessons they learned and turning last year’s heartache into ecstasy, but they face an Everest-esque task in the four-time champions from Ireland. They’ll fancy their chances, though, as they toppled Leo Cullen’s men 32-23 when they met in the semi-finals last year.
Leinster are firm favourites for a reason. They boast the very best structures in all of club rugby. Every player, down to the third or fourth-choice youngster in every position, knows exactly what his role requires of him in the overall composition of the team, which allows them to operate as an interchangeable juggernaut unlike any other.
This was impressively illustrated once again when their second-stringers beat full-strength Munster 35-25 last weekend to underline their dominance as the leading team in the United Rugby Championship at the end of the league phase. With both they and La Rochelle having a few injury concerns, their superior structures and depth leave them better equipped to deal with any potential setbacks.
On Leinster’s side, Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe are carrying injuries, while La Rochelle’s set to be without star scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow – who broke his hand in the semi-final win over Racing 92 – with fellow All Black Victor Vito also in doubt at the time of writing.
The semi-finals hammered home why Leinster are expected to lift the silverware on Saturday as they fired on all cylinders to end Toulouse’s reign with a commanding 40-17 win in Dublin while La Rochelle edged Racing 20-13 in an error-ridden encounter in Lens.
Breaking the finalists down, Leinster are ferocious, fast, fluid, and intense. They’re skilled ball players from 1 to 23 and constantly shift the point of attack.
Jamison Gibson-Park and captain Johnny Sexton form a world-class halfback pairing while Lowe, who only needs one more try to equal Chris Ashton’s tournament record total of 11 in a Champions Cup season, and the back row pair of Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier are on the five-man shortlist for the European Player of the Year award.
La Rochelle are strong defensively, excellent at the breakdown, and have a good kicking game. When they’re on, they’re also lethal on the attack. Their fundamentals, however, are their biggest strengths. They have a dominant scrum, from where they scored a try and won a further three points and a marvellous driving maul, which they used to earn a penalty try against Racing.
Captain Grégory Alldritt has been talismanic in the No 8 jersey; his tournament-leading 113 carries are over 40 more than second-placed Doris’ and see him nominated for the Player of the Year award for the second year in a row. New Zealand import Ihaia West is their other key player as he runs the show at flyhalf and is this season’s top points-scorer with 67, while the South African trio of Wiaan Liebenberg, Raymond Rhule, and Dillon Leyds will look to make an impact.
La Rochelle will put up a good fight, but the unrivalled class and cohesion of Leinster, along with their rich finals experience will see them secure their fifth star. It’ll likely be a cagey contest initially but I expect Leinster to gradually pull clear and clinch a convincing win in the end.