Juan Cruz Mallía fires Toulouse past 14-man La Rochelle to win Champions Cup

Past all-French European finals have failed to produce the finest foie gras and, until the latter stages, this one also struggled to deliver. In Toulouse, however, they will care little about the modest fare and rejoice instead in a final scoreline that makes them the most decorated champions in the tournament’s history.

For lengthy periods this was a niggly, ill-tempered slugging contest which only belatedly clicked up into a higher gear but for Toulouse all that counts is the fifth golden star they are now entitled to wear on their jerseys. For the first time since 1997, furthermore, French sides have lifted both European club rugby’s major competitions, a further sign of the renaissance in standards across the Channel.

On this occasion the game did not properly ignite until the final quarter, Toulouse having previously seized the initiative thanks to a try just before the hour by their 24-year-old Argentine outside centre Juan Cruz Mallía. Most influential of all, though, was the 28th-minute dismissal of La Rochelle’s Levani Botia, which ultimately left the challengers too much to do.

A late score for Tawera Kerr-Barlow did at least rouse his team’s fans but his half-back partner Ihaia West missed three crucial kicks to revive distant memories of the similar woes suffered in this same arena by his head coach Ronan O’Gara when Munster narrowly lost to Northampton in the 2000 final. “It was a slower game that didn’t suit us, it was a wet game that didn’t suit us,” suggested O’Gara afterwards. “But losers make excuses; we needed to be better but we weren’t good enough.”

On another day, his side might have had one last attacking launchpad with referee Luke Pearce not spotting a Toulouse player entering the game’s concluding ruck from an offside position. While O’Gara certainly saw it – “We’re disappointed with that decision but Luke had a good game” – he clearly sensed that La Rochelle could not complain too loudly.

With the brilliant Cheslin Kolbe not even touching the ball until the second half, it added up to a frequently underwhelming occasion all round. Like eating fish and chips with a plastic fork on the Champs Elysses or ordering a pint of best bitter in Bordeaux, watching two French sides plodding around beneath weeping English skies felt culturally incongruous. So much for a pulsating final: the pace was so slow it was as if someone had activated the snooze button.

Toulouse were also handicapped by the early loss of one of their towering Australian locks, Richie Arnold. With the experienced Joe Tekori replacing him it should not have been overly disruptive but, despite the disappearance of the rain, neither side could locate their rhythm.

The only scores in the first half hour were a brace of penalties apiece and O’Gara could be seen whirling his right arm in the coaching box, exhorting his troops to crank things up. Unfortunately Botia took him too literally, crunching into Maxime Medard and then blatantly taking out the lively Antoine Dupont after the European player of the season had taken a quick tap.

Botia saw yellow for the latter but the officials were not finished with him, rightly deciding the upright tackle which sent the mutton-chopped Medard reeling backwards was dangerously high. Referee Pearce duly added red to his initial yellow to bring Botia’s evening to a permanent conclusion.

For a while playing with 14 men seemed to concentrate La Rochelle minds and, improbably, they went in 12-9 ahead at the interval courtesy of West’s fourth penalty. All of Toulouse’s six previous finals had been settled by seven points or fewer and the margins were increasingly tight all round. Pita Ahki escaped a card for another slightly high hit on a stooping Gregory Alldritt and Kolbe, finally invited to collect Dupont’s cross-kick, was denied a try by a brilliant corner-flagging defensive tackle from Geoffrey Doumayrou which forced the flying Springbok to put a toe into touch.

Mallia’s nicely-taken try finally broke the stalemate but the finale was generally less compelling than anticipated. At least 10,000 spectators were present in the stadium, lending some welcome life to proceedings. Maybe, in the age of Covid, we should be grateful for small mercies and forgive the relative lack of on-field joie de vivre. Toulouse, either way, will be unburdened by such trivialities on Sunday .

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