The series is dizzying. On Sunday (16:15, France 2), Stade Rochelais will kick off the clash against Leinster with a record to defend. The Maritimes are riding a sixteen-match winning streak in Europe's prestigious competition. Invincible for two years. This dominance was rewarded with two titles, each time against the Dublin players in the final. This shows the spirit of revenge that will not fail to animate the Leinstermen, who were beaten last May at their den at the Aviva Stadium. It was another slap in the face for a province now deprived of its emblematic playmaker, Jonathan Sexton, who has just retired.
Since we're talking about records, La Rochelle can aim for a second: to make it three in a row, on May 25 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. A performance achieved only once in the history of the competition, by Rugby Club Toulonnais (2013 to 2015). The Caravelle club could have already done as well if it hadn't lost the 2021 final to Stade Toulousain. But a final and two titles in three editions already marked out La Rochelle's stranglehold on the Heineken Champions Cup.
So the question naturally arises. Do they have the means to repeat their exploits? Their start to the season raises questions. A big delay in the Top 14 (only 9th, with five defeats in nine games) and the absence, for the first two European games, of their captain and bulldozer, Grégory Alldritt. The third line centre, with his body chewed up and his mind worn out, had asked to be put out to pasture until January 1 in order to recover from the efforts made during a more than busy year. Request heard by its leaders, concerned about the well-being of their executives and, a little, worried about the repercussions of the recent failure of the XV of France in the World Cup. Ronan O'Gara admitted this week that he had found his French internationals "very scarred" by this "second pat on the head" (after the defeat in the Top 14 final against Toulouse, last June). "The boys are still disturbed by the missed opportunity to experience something exceptional in their country. But everyone has to accept that this dream is over...»
The best players in the Clover XV
There is no doubt that Leinster, now coached by former World Cup winning Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber, will do everything they can to take advantage of this. The Irish province, which is on a six-game winning streak in its league (the United Rugby Championship, which also features teams from Wales, Scotland, Italy and South Africa), rested its senior players last weekend. Indicating that the confrontation at the Marcel-Deflandre stadium was targeted. In order to give La Rochelle their cake (they had also eliminated them in the semi-finals in 2021, for a solid status of bête noire...), they will present themselves with the best elements of the Clover XV, from prop Andrew Porter to scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, via the back rows Josh Van der Flier and Caelan Doris...
It's going to put us in the mood," confirms Stade Rochelais' South African winger, Raymond Rhule. Now, everyone knows that if you want to win this competition, you have to beat La Rochelle. There's respect." Brice Dulin, for his part, sees in the recent, and clear, victory against Perpignan (36-5) reasons to hope for a new tour de force. "We finally woke up. It woke up Deflandre, too. Communion was good. It was time to play a more accomplished game to kick off this crucial December-January period in the dynamics of a season, appreciates the full-back. The Heineken Champions Cup is a one-shot game. The slightest lost match can be costly for qualification. So you have to get into the competition. It's a big chunk and the motivation of the Irish has been there since the calendar came out. But I think we'll be ready...»
The timing of a thunderous awakening for the reigning European champions would be particularly well chosen, as they are preparing to experience a month of December on hot coals: a trip to South Africa, to Cape Town, to face the Stormers next week, then, in the Top 14, two clashes against Stade Français and Stade Toulousain. But Ronan O'Gara's charges have proven time and time again over the past three seasons their ability to take on the toughest challenges.