La Rochelle-Toulouse is a bit like the series of the year in French rugby. A soap opera in several episodes, all of which seemingly endlessly end in the same way for the Maritimes. September 12, 2020, outside on Ernest-Wallon’s lawn? Defeat of Stade Rochelais (39-23). February 27, in his den of Marcel-Deflandre, impregnable for two years? Defeat of Stade Rochelais (14-11). May 22, in the European Cup final in Twickenham (London)? Defeat, again and again, the Stade Rochelais (22-17).
Friday June 25 (8:45 p.m.), the men of Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara try their luck again for the Top 14 final, on the lawn of the Stade de France. With the hope of defeating their beast (red and) black, and avoiding the unenviable fate of Union Bordeaux-Bègles, beaten for the fourth time of the season by Toulouse, Saturday, June 19, in the semi-finals (24 -21).
Mission impossible for La Rochelle? This is what one might think from the sight of the history between the two clubs. “But the match will be very close, it will be played on details”, tempers Jean-Baptiste Élissalde, former international scrum half, trained in the yellow and black jersey of La Rochelle, before bringing happiness to the Toulouse Stadium in the 2000s.
“I have the impression that the Rochelais have learned from their mistakes following these defeats. We can say that Toulouse has a little psychological advantage, but after all these weeks of competition, the teams know each other by heart anyway ”, explains the current coach of defense and kicking in Montpellier.
More balanced than it looks
Between Toulouse residents in search of a 21e national title and the Rochelais, returned to the elite in 2014 and novices at this level of the competition – they only played two championship semi-finals (2017 and 2019) – Marc Lièvremont does not see any difference either blatant. “There is an immense imbalance of experience between the two teams, but we must not forget that they are the two most consistent clubs of the season”, underlines the former coach of the XV of France (2007-2011), to the comments of the final for Canal +.
“I have a hard time giving a prognosis”, he continues, recalling however that “La Rochelle has enough strong values to have a positive approach to the final, and not to play on the vengeful side “.
The Rochelais seemed untouchable against Racing 92 (19-6) in the semi-finals on Friday, June 18. They will be able to count on strong individuals such as the pillar Uini Atonio (1.97 meters, 140 kg) or the second-line Will Skelton (2.03 meters, 140 kg), or even Grégory Alldritt and Victor Vito, essential elements of the third line. Without forgetting Brice Dulin, who is experiencing a second youth since his arrival in Charente-Maritime at the start of the season.
Opposite, the Toulouse stars seem breathless at the end of the year, and the Pita Ahki, Jerome Kaino or Julien Marchand did not have their usual performance in the semi-final. Worse, their “serial marker”, Cheslin Kolbe, has not ended up in the promised land since February 12! A unique test shortage for the South African world champion, elected best player of the Top 14 in 2019.
Wave of wounded in Toulouse
” We expect stars in particular, but in this kind of match, it is the collective notion that wins », Recalls Jean-Baptiste Élissalde. “And then it seems impossible to me to see these very good players pass by several times”, slides Marc Lièvremont. Still, the Toulouse Stadium will have to do without some of them, starting with its playing master Romain Ntamack, concussed in the semi-final and forfeit.
Toulouse coach Ugo Mola is facing an avalanche of injuries: Yoann Huget, Sofiane Guitoune, Alban Placines, Emmanuel Meafou, Clément Castets… So many players who could at least claim a place on the scoresheet at the Stade de France.
As often, the Toulouse staff will have to innovate, and this could also play into the game of the Rochelais, less weakened than their counterparts. To compensate for the absence of Romain Ntamack, it is for example Thomas Ramos who will slip at the opening, leaving his place at the back to Cheslin Kolbe. A default choice for Ugo Mola? Not really. It is precisely with the no 10 in the back that Ramos had played in the last final of the Top 14, won against Clermont in 2019 (24-18).
🚀 Our captain Romain Sazy will be accompanied by Will Skelton on the second row tomorrow for the # FinaleTop14 👊👊 Dé… https://t.co/Sw7viF38fc
𝙇𝘼 𝘾𝙊𝙈𝙋𝙊 𝘿𝙀𝙎 𝙁𝙄𝙉𝘼𝙇𝙄𝙎𝙏𝙀𝙎 ⚡ 💥 Discover the starting XV 🟤⚫ to play the final of @ top14rugby, Friday, at… https://t.co/RLdeKUnC4i