Champions Cup, Final - Teams and Predictions
LA ROCHELLE V TOULOUSE: One’s a beast. The other’s a freak. And if one of them doesn’t get you, reckons Will Skelton, the other one will.
In his size 19s and standing at 2.03m, Skelton is built like a weapon of mass destruction himself – but it’s with a touch of awe that the former Wallaby talks about rugby’s “Twin Peaks”, Rory and Richie Arnold.
There’ll be one hell of a collision at Twickenham on Saturday when European rugby’s biggest club match of the year, the Champions Cup final, pits Skelton’s La Rochelle against the Arnold twins’ Toulouse in a juggernaut all-French clash.
And the Australian engine room smash-up between these second-row behemoths could go a long way to deciding the outcome as the Arnolds try to power Toulouse to a record-breaking fifth European title.
“Yeah, you don’t run into them, you try to run around them,” smiled Skelton, when asked by AAP about tackling the identical twins who, at 2.08m and 128kg apiece, represent the biggest second-row unit in the game.
“Rory’s a beast – and then you’ve got Richie coming round the corner too,” mused Skelton.
“You think you’ve dealt with one – and you’ve got the other coming round the corner!”
Not that the twins won’t be just as concerned about Skelton, the 18-times capped former Waratah who’s playing some of the most barnstorming rugby of his career at 29, topped by a tour de force in the semifinal that did much to sink Leinster.
Indeed, Skelton, shortlisted for European Player of the Year and increasingly touted for a Wallabies’ return after a five-year absence, reckons Saturday could remind Australia coach Dave Rennie what he’s missing.
“The Arnold boys are great at the line-out and their work-rate around the pitch has been awesome. Hopefully, if Rennie is looking at players overseas, they can get the nod,” mused Skelton.
“[Richie Arnold] hasn’t been capped yet but he’s definitely a potential Wallaby, he’s a freak.
“He’s probably been unsung – he came over to France first and won the Top 14 with Toulouse in 2019, so he’s right up there with [22-time capped] Rory.
“They’re both great players and I hope they get the accolades they deserve.”
The 30-year-old twins from Wagga Wagga, who combined occasionally at the Brumbies but whose careers have often taken them in different directions, are now enjoying their first regular partnership in Toulouse.
“It’s pretty special … Mum is happy and the family are happy we’re together. Richie has got two kids,” Rory recently told Rugby World.
“A lot of times with rugby, you can miss your family so it’s really good. I’m really happy I get to share that with him.”
Skelton, enjoying his family life too in the port town of La Rochelle following the recent birth of his son Julius, also hasn’t ruled out the thought of one day being back for the Wallabies, perhaps even at the 2023 World Cup in France.
Rennie said recently: “I spoke to Will when he got to La Rochelle… watch this space. It’s a similar story with Rory Arnold and everyone overseas.”
But Skelton, who’s loved his European stint with Saracens and La Rochelle, isn’t holding his breath about dramatic changes to the ‘Giteau law’ and eligibility rules making a swift recall possible.
“It’s the goal for every player to play at a World Cup but I think it’s disrespectful if I’m here sitting and thinking I’ll be in the team two, three years away when I haven’t even been in the jersey since 2016,” he said.
“You’ve got to earn your right to play for your country and all I can do is play well here and if they change the rules, they change the rules.
“But no, I’ve not ruled out a Wallabies’ return. No, never. Nobody ever turns their phone off when the coach of the national team calls.”
Stats that matter
• This will be the first time these clubs have met in European competition. However, Toulouse have won six of their last seven clashes against La Rochelle in the TOP 14 (L1).
• La Rochelle will be participating in their first Champions Cup final, they have reached this stage in the Challenge Cup though, suffering a 16-36 defeat to fellow TOP 14 side ASM Clermont Auvergne in 2018/19.
• Toulouse have won the Champions Cup on four occasions and will be aiming to lift the trophy for a record fifth time; three of their previous four final victories came against fellow TOP 14 opposition – Perpignan in 2002/03, Stade Français in 2004/05 and Biarritz in 2009/10.
• In total, Toulouse have reached the Champions Cup final for the seventh time, each of their previous six matches at this stage have been decided by seven points or fewer, including a 20-27 defeat to Wasps in their only previous final at Twickenham.
• La Rochelle have won their last four completed matches in the Champions Cup, their best run in the competition, while Toulouse have also won their last four matches and have suffered just one defeat in the 12 matches they’ve played since the beginning of last season (W11).
• Toulouse are one of just five sides to maintain a 100 person scrum success rate in the Champions Cup this season, winning each of their 21 scrums, while they’ve also managed to win 29 percent of scrums on the opposition feed, the best rate of any club.
• Only Lyon (14.5) have averaged more offloads per game in the Champions Cup this season than La Rochelle (11.3) and Toulouse (10.3); La Rochelle have also allowed their opponents to offload less often than against any other side (4.5 per game).
• Gregory Alldritt (La Rochelle) has made 59 carries in the Champions Cup this season, more than any other player, whilst he’s also beaten 10 defenders – the joint most of any forward, alongside teammate Will Skelton and Bristol Bears’ Nathan Hughes.
• Toulouse’s Antoine Dupont has scored the joint most tries of any player in the Champions Cup this season (4, level with three other players), while he has the best average gain of any player to make 30+ carries this campaign (7.8m per carry) and ranks second for both offloads (7) and defenders beaten (20).
• La Rochelle’s Wian Liebenberg has averaged 16.9 tackles per 80 minutes in the Champions Cup in 2020/21, the best rate of any player to play at least 160 minutes, recording a tackle success rate of 91 percent in the process.
@rugby365com: Toulouse by five points.
La Rochelle: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Levani Botia, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Grégory Alldritt, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Romain Sazy (captain), 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 1 Dany Priso.
Replacements: 16 Facundo Bosch, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Arthur Joly, 19 Thomas Lavault, 20 Wiaan Liebenberg, 21 Paul Boudehent, 22 Arthur Retiere, 23 Jules Plisson.
Toulouse: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Juan Cruz Mallía, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Matthis Lebel, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (captain), 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Francois Cros, 6 Rynhardt Elstadt, 5 Richie Arnold, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Guillaume Marchand, 17 Clément Castets, 18 David Ainu’u, 19 Joe Tekori, 20 Thibaud Flament, 21 Selevasio Tolofua, 22 Baptiste Germain, 23 Thomas Ramos.
Date: Saturday, May 22
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 16:45 (17.45 France time; 15:45 GMT)
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)
AAP & @ChampionsCup