Heineken Champions Cup final predictions: Dublin decider may go to the wire
- Leinster have won 24 of their 27 matches in all competitions this season
- La Rochelle have won their two previous European meetings with Leinster
- Recommended bet: La Rochelle +8.5 handicap
One year on from a bruising Champions Cup final in the heat of Marseille, Leinster and La Rochelle are gearing up to do it all over again in Dublin on Saturday.
Leinster were denied a record-equalling fifth European title by the French outfit last May, Arthur Retiere’s late try securing the Maritimes a 24-21 win and a first Champions Cup.
Leinster’s season has been geared towards avenging that defeat and a squad choked full of Ireland internationals has cruised through to the final, bruising aside the likes of Toulouse, Racing 92 and Leicester along the way.
But if there’s one side that can combat Leinster’s physicality it's La Rochelle and the stage is set for another epic encounter in front of a sold-out Aviva Stadium.
Leinster are missing seven players for the final, including Jamie Osborne and skipper Johnny Sexton, but there’s better news elsewhere with James Lowe and Scott Penny available for selection.
Robbie Henshaw, Cian Healy and Ronan Kelleher all came through last week’s URC semi-final loss to Munster unscathed on their returns from injury and should be fine to feature.
Jonathan Danty, Yoan Tanga and Levani Botia made their comebacks from injury in La Rochelle’s Top 14 defeat to Montpellier.
They’ll be in the travelling party, along with Will Skelton, Gregory Alldritt, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Antoine Hastoy, Ulupano Seuteni and Brice Dulin, who were all rested last weekend.
Leinster have lost their last two Champions Cup finals and haven’t lifted the trophy since a 15-12 win over Racing 92 in 2018.
They’ve been fully focused on righting those recent wrongs this season though and enter the final as the team with the most points (310), tries (43), carries (929) and clean breaks (62) in the Champions Cup.
In contrast, La Rochelle have scored 28 tries and 220 points in Europe. They’ve also given up the most penalties in the competition (83) and Leinster fly-half Ross Bryne could get plenty of shots at the posts.
Bryne’s boot should be well matched by La Rochelle No.10 Antoine Hastoy, who is the leading points scorer (81) in this season’s Champions Cup.
La Rochelle are looking to join an elite group of French clubs to have completed a Top 14-Champions Cup double with Toulouse (1996 & 2021) and Toulon (2014) the only other sides to achieve the feat.
There was little to choose between these sides in last year’s final and both have only improved since, as demonstrated by their largely flawless runs through the competition.
Leinster have blown teams away in Europe - they haven’t had a smaller winning margin than 15 points - and on home soil they’ll be tough to overcome.
All the eggs are in the European basket for Leinster, as demonstrated by director of rugby Stuart Lancaster resting seven Irish Grand Slam winners for the URC semi-final with Munster, which backfired as they lost 16-15 at the Aviva Stadium.
Back-to-back losses at the Aviva for such a dominant Leinster team seems unthinkable but La Rochelle match up well. Their pack, featuring the likes of Uini Atonio, Will Skelton and Gregory Alldritt, should be able to stand up to Leinster’s powerful forwards.
Danty’s return to the backline is a massive boost for the French side too and there’s no skirting around how much of a blow it is for Leinster not to have Sexton.
La Rochelle travel well too, winning seven of their last 10 away games, a run that includes a 36-29 win over Ulster at the Aviva, and they may make a mockery of being 8.5-point underdogs.