With the Champions Cup final on the menu this weekend, it’s easy to forget that there’s actually a second clash taking place at Newcastle: the Challenge Cup final.
While the Saracens v Leinster match-up is no doubt the main course, the French will be serving up a mouth-watering entrée on Friday evening in the form of Clermont v La Rochelle.
Both sides are stacked with talent from around the globe, and even if you aren’t a fan of French rugby, the opportunity to see some of your nation’s old representatives should be enticing.
All rugby fans should be familiar with French powerhouse Clermont.
Since 2010, Clermont have won the French domestic league twice – most recently in 2017. They were also runners up in the Champions Cup in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Their squad has 28 internationals on the books, including speedster Damian Penaud and one of the world’s best midfielders, Wesley Fofana – not to mention the likes of Greig Laidlaw, Tim Nanai-Williams and George Moala.
La Rochelle will head into the match as underdogs. They’ve only been playing in France’s top division for five seasons and are currently on track to make only their second appearance in the Top 14 finals series. There’s certainly a stronger French flavour to the Rochellian team with the only notable foreign players marching out for the final being the halves combination of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Ihaia West.
It’s no surprise that Clermont have been one of the form teams of the Top 14 competition to date and are currently sitting in second place behind Champions Cup semi-finalists Toulouse.
The 2019 year has proved extremely successful for Clermont. They have lost only three matches since Christmas, with the biggest margin being eight points. They have won nine games and drawn two in that same timeframe and clocked up over 40 points in eight of their matches. At the moment, Clermont are sitting on a three-match winning streak – a streak that started back when they beat the Harlequins in the Challenge Cup semi-finals to earn their spot in Friday’s showcase event.
La Rochelle, who are fourth in the Top 14, have had a more challenging time in 2019. Results have been mixed, with their relative success in Europe being counterbalanced by a poor run of form in the domestic French competition.
In February and March, La Rochelle managed only one win in the Top 14 and at one point it looked like they might not qualify for the finals series. They’ve managed to turn things around in the last few weeks, however, banking points against some of the competition strugglers as well as against rivals Castres. Still, their performances have not been anywhere near as comprehensive as Clermont’s.
Players to Watch
When Isaia Toeava left New Zealand’s shores in 2012, he was only barely coming into the peak of his career. French rugby doesn’t always suit Southern Hemisphere backs, but Toeava is the perfect combination of size, speed and skill and has asserted himself as one of the best fullbacks in the Top 14. His combination with Damian Penaud has played a large role in Clermont’s try-scoring feats this season.
La Rochelle fullback Vincent Rattez has one of the best sidesteps in world rugby and has plenty of pace to boot. In the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, it was Rattez who absolutely tore the Bristol Bears to shreds and La Rochelle will be wanting to get quick, front-foot ball to Rattez as often as possible.
Ihaia West, La Rochelle’s flyhalf, will also play a key role in getting the ball out to the outside backs. West is the top point-scorer in this season’s Top 14 with 35 penalty goals to his name, and will combine with ex-All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Alexis Bales has typically been preferred at halfback for La Rochelle this year, with the adept goal-kicker starting both Challenge Cup knockout matches. Kerr-Barlow’s selection indicates that coaches Xavier Garbajosa and Grégory Patat may be concerned about the damage that Clermont can do around the rucks.
Look for giant Fijian back rower Peceli Yato to enter the fray later in the game off the bench and make a big impact for Clermont. Yato scored three tries last week against Perpignan and looks to be spotting a few extra kilos than the 112kg that Clermont list him at – all of which are put to good use when he picks up a little bit of speed and crashes into the defensive line. If Clermont coach Franck Azéma finds his team lacking some go-forward, expect to see Yato injected to make a difference.
Challenge Cup Results
Clermont were the only team to go undefeated during the pool stages of the competition. La Rochelle suffered only one defeat, at home to Bristol.
W 32 – 27 v Harlequins (SF)
W 61 – 38 v Northampton Saints (QF)
W 7 – 49 v Dragons
W 48 – 40 v Northampton Saints
W 49 – 24 v Dragons
W 14 – 47 v Timisoara Saracens
W 70 – 12 v Timisoara Saracens
W 20 – 41 v Northampton Saints
W 24 – 20 v Sale Sharks (SF)
W 39 – 15 v Bristol Bears (QF)
W 10 – 22 v Zebre
W 32 – 12 v Zebre
L 3 – 13 v Bristol Bears
W 22 – 35 v Bristol Bears
W 64 – 24 v Enisei-STM
W 21 – 82 v Enisei-STM
In the past two seasons the two French teams have stuck to tradition and won their home matches and lost their away games. Clermont, who have been a regular fixture in the top flight of French rugby, had the wood over their western neighbours in the first few seasons after La Rochelle were promoted back up to the Top 14, but all in all it’s been a fairly even competition between the two sides.
2018-19 Round 14: Clermont 44 – 19 La Rochelle
2018-19 Round 7: La Rochelle 16 – 12 Clermont
2017-18 Round 19: Clermont 21 – 17 La Rochelle
2017-18 Round 3: La Rochelle 51 – 20 Clermont
2016-17 Round 26: Clermont 30 – 26 La Rochelle
2016-17 Round 1: La Rochelle 30 – 30 Clermont
2015-16 Round 26: Clermont 57 – 8 La Rochelle
2015-16 Round 1: La Rochelle 6 – 44 Clermont
2014-15 Round 17: La Rochelle 16 – 12 Clermont
2014-15 Round 9: Clermont 30 – 10 La Rochelle
Clermont: Isaia Toeava, Damian Penaud, George Moala, Wesley Fofana, Alivereti Raka, Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra (c), Fritz Lee, Alexandre Lapandry, Arthur Iturria, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Sitaleki Timani, Rabah Slimani, Benjamin Kayser, Etienne Falgoux. Reserves: John Ulugia, Beka Kakabadze, Davit Zirakashvili, Paul Jedrasiak, Peceli Yato, Greig Laidlaw, Tim Nanai-Williams, Apisai Naqalevu.
La Rochelle: Vincent Rattez, Arthur Retiere, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Pierre Aguillon, Marc Andreu, Ihaia West, Tawera Kerr Barlow, Grégory Alldritt, Kevin Gourdon, Wiaan Liebenberg, Mathieu Tanguy, Romain Sazy (c), Uini Atonio, Jean-Charles Orioli, Dany Priso. Reserves: Pierre Bourgarit, Vincent Pelo, Arthur Joly, Thomas Jolmes, Zeno Kieft, Alexi Bales, Jérémy Sinzelle, Levani Botia.
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