Rugby

‘They said we couldn’t do it’: Skelton and La Rochelle defy odds in epic comeback to seal Champions Cup title

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Wallabies star Will Skelton has been left savouring how his La Rochelle side pulled off one of the great European Champions Cup final comebacks in Dublin.

The giant second-row Skelton helped inspire his French club to overhaul home-based Leinster – and a 17-0 deficit – to win their final 27-26 at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

La Rochelle didn’t lead until eight minutes to go, after Antoine Hastoy coolly converted Georges-Henri Colombe’s try off a close-in ruck.

Yellow cards reduced both sides to 14 men. La Rochelle were desperately defending their tryline in the 79th minute when Leinster’s Austraian-born Michael Ala’alatoa charged into the head of Colombe in a ruck and was sent off while the Frenchman was carried off.

The French visitors cleared their line and moments later were celebrating their European crown in front of a stunned Leinster and their supporters. 

La Rochelle also overcame Leinster in a come-from-behind win in the final last year for their first title, but not from as deep a hole as on Saturday.

“They said we couldn’t do it, come to Leinster and win, but we did,” Skelton beamed.

“Leinster are a world-class team and we had to dig deep. At 17-0 down, we still had the belief.”

Stade Rochelais player Will Skelton celebrates on the final whistle during the Heineken Champions Cup Final between Leinster Rugby and Stade Rochelais at Aviva Stadium on May 20, 2023 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Stade Rochelais player Will Skelton celebrates on the final whistle during the Heineken Champions Cup Final between Leinster Rugby and Stade Rochelais at Aviva Stadium. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Leinster, including 14 Ireland grand slam winners, were targeting a record-tying fifth European title and made a brilliant start.

Hooker Dan Sheehan crossed twice — the first try just 40 seconds in — and wing Jimmy O’Brien touched down in a spellbinding first 12 minutes.

La Rochelle hit back when Jonathan Danty used his power to bump off Garry Ringrose to score. After half an hour, Leinster led 23-7 but crucially lost captain James Ryan to a head injury.

Just before halftime, an improving La Rochelle sent centre Ulupano Seuteni over. To trail by only nine points at halftime heartened the visitors.

La Rochelle’s Irish coach Ronan O’Gara emphasised to his team at halftime how Leinster had lost their previous two finals.

“23-14 felt like a great halftime result for us,” O’Gara said. “One of the staff reminded me we were minus eight in Marseille (last year) and today we were minus nine, so we built a little story about that to get the boys pumping. 

“We had the internal energy and we had a great grip on the second half. We won the hard way which is very, very pleasing.”

La Rochelle camped in Leinster’s half and ground down the home side as they did last year. Hastoy added two penalties and then the match-winning conversion.

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