Cheslin Kolbe, Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule and Grand Final referee Jaco Peyper all played their parts, but after watching a spectacular and dramatic European finals weekend in Dublin, South Africa will want to provide more than just individuals to the event going forward.
Getting up to speed to compete at that level though will be hard to do as the French teams have set a high benchmark and a look at their team sheets underlined the difference between the financial wealth of the French clubs, and what they can do with that money, and what South Africa can afford.
On Friday, the World Cup-winning Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe, playing at fullback this time, was the man of the match in Toulon’s comprehensive thumping of Franco Smith’s Glasgow Warriors in the EPCR Challenge Cup final that provided an appetiser for Saturday’s main event. And then when everyone sat down for the main course itself, the two other Bok wings, Rhule and Leyds were part of a LaRochelle team that won the Champions Cup title for the second successive time by completing a hat-trick of major playoff wins against Leinster.
It was LaRochelle who knocked Leinster out in the 2021 semifinal, coming back to win it late, and they did the same thing in the final last year.
A COMEBACK FOR THE AGES
It was a comeback for the ages from LaRochelle, or ‘ROGchelle’ as they are known by those who recognise the enormous influence of their coach, the former Ireland and Munster flyhalf Ronan O’Gara. For thrills, drama and tension, it staged a perfect advertisement for the attraction of a competition that most ex-Springboks who played in both competitions agree is much tougher than Super Rugby.
Certainly, in one aspect, the European final is hard to beat - a packed-out Aviva Stadium generated a noise level and an atmosphere that would be hard to replicate anywhere else, with the blue of Leinster being dominant but not to the extent that it drowned out the boisterous yellow of the French club.
And boy, did those traveling fans have something to celebrate when the final whistle sounded on a game that, just like the decider the previous year in Marseille, Leinster led until the dying minutes. Last season it was the last move of the game that saw LaRochelle triumph. This time around, what proved the match-winning try and conversion came eight minutes from time.
TALKING POINTS DIDN’T END WITH WINNING SCORE
Not that the score was the last talking point in a game that was full of them. A Leinster player was banished by a yellow card, which might as well have been red as there were less than 10 minutes to go, because of an infringement in the build-up to the LaRochelle try. And then it was LaRochelle’s turn to lose a man because of a dangerous and illegal tackle as Leinster summoned up all their energy for a concerted final assault on the French team’s defences.
At 14 against 14 and with Leinster inside the LaRochelle territory for the first time in a half where the Irish team were mercilessly bullied by the LaRochelle forwards, it looked like the momentum might be swinging to the team that had dominated the first quarter to such an extent that they went 17-0 up by scoring three tries within the opening 12 minutes.
But the drama wasn’t done. In his enthusiasm to keep Leinster going forward and to get the ball back metres from the LaRochelle line and with just two minutes remaining - it was 1:45 to be precise - the home team’s replacement prop Michael Ala’alatoa clattered into a ruck without using his arms or wrapping. It was a clear red card. More particularly, it was an opportunity for LaRochelle to relieve the siege with the penalty. Leinster lost their composure and conceded another penalty and the game was done.
WINNERS SET A HIGH BENCH-MARK
Thus ended the first Champions Cup season to feature South African teams, and for those who were watching and have ambitions of emulating LaRochelle, a very high benchmark was set. In both competitions. On Friday night, Toulon were way too good for Glasgow and pretty much dominated from the start.
In both instances the team sheets of the two winning sides underlined the massive task that awaits any South African challenger - while Leinster were mainly made up of Irish-qualified players, the red-carded Ala’alatoa being a rare exception, the LaRochelle and Toulon teams reflected the financial might of the French clubs.
LaRochelle are not a shadow French side in the same way that Leinster are the shadow Ireland national team. Toulouse, who were beaten by Leinster in the semifinal, are more reflective of French rugby strength. But it is hard to disagree with the view of some critics that the LaRochelle power game driven by star players from around the globe, like the hulking Aussie behemoth Will Skelton, would have proved too much for many national teams.
Apart from Skelton, LaRochelle’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes was spearheaded by the outstanding Gregory Alldritt, who capped a magnificent Champions Cup season with the man of the match award in the final.
KOLBE A BOK FULLBACK OPTION
The man of the match in the Challenge Cup final was Kolbe, this time noted less for his attacking play than his brave and committed defensive work. He looks like an option for the Boks at fullback should it be necessary. But the international flavour of the Toulon team didn’t end there. He went off injured early but Toulon were also spearheaded by Welsh captain and British and Irish Lions flyhalf Dan Biggar, who was replaced by former Blues (Auckland) player Ihaia West.
That’s the difference between the French teams and the South African teams right there - the South African sides, like Leinster will probably continue to be, are made up primarily of local talent.
That’s not a bad thing for the Springbok hopes, but the strength of the top French clubs and the prevalence of international players in their teams does demand a sharp upward trajectory in the learning curve for the Stormers and Vodacom Bulls, those being the two South African teams in the main event next season after the Cell C Sharks failed to qualify this time.
European final results
Heineken Champions Cup Grand Final (Aviva Stadium, Dublin)
Leinster 26 LaRochelle 27
EPCR Challenge Cup (Aviva Stadium, Dublin)
Toulon 43 Glasgow Warriors 19