Champions Cup Champs: The 'unreal' feeling
REACTION: Jerome Kaino said it felt “unreal” to have helped Toulouse win a record fifth European Champions Cup title after a tense 22-17 victory over 14-man La Rochelle in an all-French final at Twickenham on Saturday.
La Rochelle were a man down as early as the 28th minute when centre Levani Botia was red-carded for a head-high shoulder charge on Toulouse full-back Maxime Medard.
Yet the game was still in the balance at 12-12 on the hour when Toulouse centre Juan Cruz Mallia crossed for the first try of a bruising match.
La Rochelle hit back through a 73rd-minute try from Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
West’s conversion, however, bounced clear off the post, meaning his side needed a try, rather than a penalty, to draw level and, with time running out, it proved beyond them.
Victory saw Kaino add a European crown to the two World Cup titles he won with New Zealand in 2011 and 2015.
“The history is everywhere around the club, it hits you straightaway when you get there so for us it was a huge motivating factor to live up to the standard that had already been set up for us,” No,8 Kaino told Channel 4 after Toulouse had surpassed the record of four Champions Cup final wins they had previously shared with Irish province Leinster.
“To be able to get that fifth star is unreal,” he added.
There was further glory for Toulouse when France scrum-half Antoine Dupont was named the European player of the year following the final whistle.
“It’s been a very tough year with all the Covid-19 restrictions, but since the beginning, it’s been a major target to win something and today we did it,” said skipper Dupont, now arguably the world’s best No.9.
La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara, a two-time European champion as a player with Munster, said his side had been “inaccurate and indisciplined in the first half regardless of the red card”.
The former Ireland flyhalf insisted the “character of this team was never in doubt” before adding: “It was a wet day which didn’t suit us.
“But losers make excuses. We weren’t good enough.”
This match played before a Covid-restricted crowd of 10 000, kicked off with France assured of a European double after Montpellier edged England’s Leicester 18-17 in Friday’s second-tier Challenge Cup final at Twickenham.
An early flurry of penalties in a bruising encounter, which included West hitting the woodwork for the first, left the match all square at 6-6.
A real champagne moment 🍾 pic.twitter.com/4am6uvE2Li
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 22, 2021
But then came the turning point, with Botia sent off for a sickening hit.
English referee Luke Pearce initially awarded a yellow card but changed his decision after reviewing the incident on the giant screen.
“He [Botia] doesn’t go out there intending to get a red card,” said O’Gara. “He hit high which equals a red card. We are trying to make the game safer. We’ve no complaints.”
More penalties left La Rochelle, currently second to Top 14 leaders Toulouse, 12-9 up at the break after West succeeded with the last kick of the first half.
West, however, pulled a penalty wide early in the second period.
Before the match, O’Gara had identified South Africa World Cup-winning wing Cheslin Kolbe and Dupont as Toulouse’s “X-factor” players” who could turn a game.
After a quiet opening 40 minutes, they almost proved him right with Kolbe, diving in at the corner following Dupont’s fine kick, only denied a try by a brilliant cover tackle from Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Ntamack levelled the scores at 12-12 before Toulouse eventually made their advantage count.
The flyhalf’s pass over the top found Selevasio Tolofua and the ball was moved inside to Argentina’s Mallia, who raced in for a try.
But former New Zealand scrumhalf Kerr-Barlow revived La Rochelle with a sniping blindside try off a rolling maul only for West to again see a third shot at goal hit the post.