Final could be a clash of two Champions Cup giants

rugby15 April 2024 09:32
By:Gavin Rich
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James Lowe © Gallo Images

Leinster dealt comfortably enough with the challenge of their arch-nemesis La Rochelle in their Investec Champions Cup quarterfinal but there is still another massive French obstacle lying in their path as the Irish team goes out to break a sequence of agonising deciding-game failures.

As good as Leinster were in winning their quarterfinal, so Toulouse were in imperious form as they tightened up following a loose start to destroy the challenge of Exeter Chiefs. Toulouse have won five Champions Cup titles, Leinster are next best with four, and the chances are good that these two Galacticos of the elite European competition will be facing off for the main prize at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on 25 May.

From the start of this Champions Cup season, it has been generally accepted that there’s a big three - Leinster, La Rochelle and Toulouse. The last mentioned have the most stars on their chest, confirming the number of times they’ve been the kings of Europe, five, but they’ve failed to make the last two finals, leaving it instead for Leinster and La Rochelle to battle it out in the decider.

After their second-half annihilation of the Chiefs though, they have an excellent chance of making it at least that far this year, and the smart money should also be on Leinster being their opponents.


Leinster were narrow losers to La Rochelle in both the last two finals, but didn’t leave anything to chance in front of a packed AVIVA Stadium, with the DHL Stormers’ contribution to the competition being that the two-time reigning champions, La Rochelle, were forced to go to Cape Town to win a tight round-of-16 clash the week before.

In both of the finals that La Rochelle played against Leinster, they came back from deficits to win, and even though Leinster were well ahead early in the second half, there would have been recollections in the stands of La Rochelle’s comeback from a 17 point deficit in last season’s decider. They also recovered from a 16-point deficit en route to their one-point win at the DHL Stadium.

However, having crossed the equator from Cape Town in the week building up to the quarterfinal, it was always hard to see La Rochelle having the energy to recover this time, and that perception was proved to be correct as Leinster shut them out by playing like the shadow Ireland international team that they are.

Leinster now come to South Africa to play two URC games against first the Emirates Lions and then the Stormers and it is going to be interesting to see what squad they send. The first-choice Leinster players were engaged in the top-of-the-log URC game against the Bulls on Easter weekend, so they’ve had three games in a row.

Conveniently for the Stormers, who’d profit from Leinster fielding a second-string team, their Champions Cup semifinal against Northampton Saints is a week after they are in Cape Town - so they might be looking at player management considerations when they play against the inaugural URC champions.


On the evidence of the Leinster win over La Rochelle, however, there is no debate about the strength of Leinster when they are at full strength, and they are gaining in form with each game they play. The Stormers would have been without as many as six frontline players had it been them and not La Rochelle who went to Dublin this past weekend, so maybe John Dobson’s men dodged a bullet when Manie Libbok missed what would have been the winning conversion in the round-of-16 match.

Although Saints, the current leaders in the Gallagher Premiership, were convincing winners against the Bulls, who went to Franklin Gardens understrength, they will be underdogs in the early May semifinal. Ditto Harlequins, who produced the shock of the quarterfinal round by winning an astoundingly absorbing and entertaining game in Bordeaux by a solitary point.

Indeed, while there were some big wins for the favoured teams, the quarterfinals did show the South African rugby public what there is to be had if the local teams win through to a home playoff. There was so much vibrancy and colour in evidence in Bordeaux, Dublin and for that matter Northampton, and the intimidating and noisy crowd in Toulouse is often remarked on by those who have experienced it.

The current agreement that sees the competition played only in Europe from the semifinal round onwards will fall away when SA Rugby becomes full shareholders next season and maybe with more for the SA teams to aim at, there will be the necessary step up in focus on the Cup competition.

At the moment, the potential compromise of their URC challenge brought about by the travel factor at this stage of the Champions Cup, where venues for the quarterfinal round are decided by the games played the week before, mitigates against the South African teams throwing everything at it.

The Bulls are having to answer questions about them fielding an understrength team against Northampton but in reality, it appears to be an accepted way of dealing with the challenge of being part of two competitions. As evidenced by the French teams often going understrength for away games.

Although Harlequins will be underdogs in their playoff against Toulouse, no one gave them a chance of beating Bordeaux, so they won’t travel completely lacking in confidence.

While Leinster are the only remaining URC team in the Champions Cup, two of the four sides in the last four of the EPCR Challenge Cup have the URC as their bread-and-butter tournament.

If the Hollywoodbets Sharks win what will be a tough semifinal against Clermont-Auvergne in London, they will be up against one of their fellow URC teams in Benetton or the English team Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final in London on 24 May.

Clermont got to the next round by destroying URC contenders Ulster, who have now lost three games in succession under their new coach.


Bordeaux Begles 41 Harlequins 42

Leinster 40 La Rochelle 13

Northampton Saints 59 Vodacom Bulls 22

Toulouse 64 Exeter Chiefs 26


Leinster v Northampton Saints (4 May, 18.30)

Toulouse v Harlequins (5 May, 16.00)


Benetton 39 Connacht 24

Hollywoodbets Sharks 36 Edinburgh 30

Clermont Auvergne 53 Uster 14

Gloucester 23 Ospreys 13


Hollywoodbets Sharks v Clermont Auvergne (4 May, 13.30)

Gloucester v Benetton (4 May, 16.00