'I was so not shocked. Shocked is not the right word'
Dillyn Leyds can’t quite believe that La Rochelle had to call a stop in midweek to the incredible celebrations ignited by last weekend’s breakthrough Heineken Champions Cup title win. The hoopla in the coastal city was unprecedented, one night rolling into the next. But it all came to an abrupt halt on Wednesday. Duty called. The Top 14 regular season reaches its denouement this Sunday night and a spectacular finish is in prospect with all seven matches simultaneously kicking off at 9:05pm local time.
It’s quite the bottleneck. Three teams are competing for the top two spots with nine teams in total contending for the top six knockouts. Another two are battling against relegation. The multitude of permutations is a mathematician’s dream. Take the La Rochelle situation. The Champions Cup champions are in fourth on 67 points but must travel to eight-place Lyon, last weekend’s Challenge Cup winners, who have 63. No wonder their revelry was cut short – there is a de factor football-type European Super Cup game to win.
“The fact that every single game is at the same time makes things very interesting,” enthused Leyds over the phone on Wednesday evening to RugbyPass after training. “It’s like the Premier League a couple of weekends ago. We’re hoping for a result and other teams are hoping for results to make sure they get into the top six to qualify. It’s awesome.
“We were in this morning for the first time to sweat out all the alcohol and things are settling down. It’s a bit awkward with this game on Sunday. If this (European win) was at the end of the season things would go on for a good couple of days more, maybe a week or so a least.”
They sure would. If people didn’t really know Stade Rochelais before last weekend’s thrilling exploits in Marseille, the outpouring of joy that ensured in the port of La Rochelle definitely put the French club on the map. If beaten Leinster had won their fifth star, they would have flown home without a fuss, catching up with supporters at the RDS rather than making a big deal in their Dublin home city.
— Stade Rochelais (@staderochelais) May 31, 2022
Contrast that probable low key Irish reception to the glorious scenes in La Rochelle where footage of their fascinating open-top bus parade through a wedged-tight city was beamed around the world. We’ll have more about all that jazz later but the mesmerising razzamatazz must start in Marseille and the bird’s eye view Leyds had when the scales irrevocably tipped his team’s way.
The 29-year-old winger was called ashore on 68 minutes with Leinster leading 21-17 so it was from the sidelines where he watched Arthur Retiere touching down with 78:48 on the clock, an extraordinary incident where the handbrake was quickly applied after an initial outburst of jubilation.
“We didn’t know whether he had got it or not,” said Leyds, jogging his memory back to last weekend’s moment of truth. “He seemed pretty confident walking back but everyone around him was sort of hovering, especially us on the bench. We were like, ‘Have you got, have you got it?’
“Everyone was jumping and screaming but not really knowing and it was a concern but once the replay came up on the big screen and we saw it we were all like, ‘Oh shit, he’s got it’. That is when everyone went crazy for about five seconds and then at the same time realised we might still have a kick-off to deal with after Ihaia (West) takes the conversion.
“Yeah, it was crazy for a couple of seconds, everyone jumping around screaming with just pure joy and happiness and then we soon realised Ihaia was standing around taking his time to kick the conversion. As the clock was ticking down it got to about ten seconds left and we knew we were just going to see this out, take it to 80. That’s when the celebrations started.”
A South African, Leyds only joined La Rochelle in 2020 but the unbridled joy sparked by the triumph immediately hit home on seeing the reaction of his longer-serving colleagues at the club. It meant he quickly truly appreciated the significance of what had just been achieved.
“Seeing guys like Jeremy Sinzelle, Kevin Gourdon, Uini Atonio, (Levani) Botia, these guys who have been around the club for so long and put so much time and effort into hopefully bringing a trophy to La Rochelle, just seeing them and the raw pure emotion, that was when I realised this is big and is something that will live with us forever.
“That’s something Rog (director of rugby Ronan O’Gara) had been hammering once we got to the quarter-final stage, telling us to remember how we felt last year at Twickenham (after losing the final to Toulouse) and that we have so many players leaving at the end of the season.
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“It was just getting guys to think I played with a Victor Vito or I played with a Danny Priso. You want to say, ‘I won something with these guys’ and to see them show pure, raw emotion and actually realise what this means was when it hit me what we had done was really special.”
Right then, let’s dive into the uproarious celebrations. Here’s how they played out, according to the revelry-embracing Leyds. “Saturday straight after the game was ridiculous. There was a bit of an issue with our flight from Marseille, we waited quite a while at the airport but some boys were onto it pretty quickly, ordering beers and burgers through Uber Eats.
“So we were just sitting at the airport having beers not even bothered about getting back to La Rochelle, just so happy to be with the guys, guys you have worked with so hard to achieve this. We got back to La Rochelle about half-past five (in the morning) and ended up going to our training centre to have a few beers there and then some guys decided it would be a great idea to have oysters and wine at the market at seven o’clock in the morning.
“Sunday evening was another big one, 4/5am again. I don’t know where the boys got their energy from but they kept on going. We had the parade and went to Stade Marcel Deflandre to celebrate there with our families. Some boys had pretty deep nights. Monday at about midday we were at one of the beach bars and we went drinking and even then the nightclubs in La Rochelle were open on a Monday night, so it just rolled into the nightclubs as well.”
But what about that enormous turnout for the trophy parade? “I was so not shocked. Shocked is not the right word because the support we get from this town and the people around, every weekend the stadium is sold out and people are their loving rugby, love their town and are so proud of La Rochelle and to be from La Rochelle.
???El impresionante recibimiento a los campeones
— Fran Capizzi ???? (@Fran_Capizzi) May 29, 2022
“To be on that bus and be in that parade on Sunday and seeing the port just packed out, literally people on top of monuments, on rooftops, on balconies, it was just crazy. I remember taking a couple of videos. I was thinking it would be good to have these memories on my phone to look back on but I also just wanted to be in that moment and just live it.
“To experience something like that in a place I myself am not from but where you feel so at home was brilliant. The people deserve it, what they have been through and how they stuck with the club in Pro D2 and the last couple of years when things weren’t going too well results-wise, to now be able to bring back a trophy – a Champions Cup trophy – was massive.
“How would I describe La Rochelle? Wow. Winning the trophy for the people that support us so much was something I’m grateful to be a part of. After last year’s two final losses [Europe and Top 14] we came back to La Rochelle in the early hours of the morning, 3/4am, and there were about 1,000 people waiting to say thank you for what you have done for La Rochelle.
“That to me was just incredible. Can you imagine what these people would do if we came home after a final and brought back the trophy? Seeing all the pictures and videos all over social media of what the port looked like on Sunday showed exactly what it means to us. This place literally just fitted me and my wife like a glove.
“All the people are amazing. Some of them hardly speak a word of English but when they see you there is a ‘thank you’ or a ‘hello’. It’s so great. We are just really lucky to be living in such a wonderful city and to also be involved in such a great club.”
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It was fate that Leyds moved there in 2020 and not England the year before. “I’d the opportunity to go to Harlequins. At the time I was still really pushing for my spot in the World Cup squad and didn’t want to jump ship, I really wanted to push for the Springboks.
“That had nothing to do with the club or the people at the club or anything like that at Harlequins, it was just timing. I just wanted to reach my personal goal of reaching the Springboks squad and being at the World Cup (which he didn’t) and at the time it just seemed like the right thing for me to stay in South Africa.”
South African roots are important. Leyds plans to head for an off-season visit to catch up with his parents and thank people in the Strand area of Cape Town. “Before every game, my parents will send a message to say good luck, that they are watching or they will try and watch.
“To have that support and especially after a game like last Saturday, when I spoke to them to see how happy they were for me it was emotional. I’m planning on going home at the end of the season to share these memories and talk to them about what it is like to be a European champion… I’m definitely still in touch with a lot of people. Strand is where I grew up and it will always be home. It’s a small town and you will always be from there. The people back you and support you no matter what.”
Other South Africans to have his back are Toulon’s Cheslin Kolbe – a European winner last year with Toulouse – and two La Rochelle teammates Wiann Liebenburg and Raymond Rhule, colleagues from the 2012 Junior World Cup final win against a New Zealand containing, of all people, Ihaia West. “Cheslin was one of the first people to call me after the game. He was saying how happy he was for me and for the team.
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“I always have so much time for him, he’s such a great guy. For him to call me and to say he was having a beer for us was really great. There has been so much support all over and it sums up how special competition this is and how many people are out there watching. We were teenagers growing up in Cape Town and now winning Europe’s biggest game, it’s something you dream of and now it’s right here in front of you,” he said before referencing Liebenburg and Rhule.
“We spoke about it beforehand, saying how good it would be if ten years later we won another trophy together and especially with Rian retiring at the end of the season. When you are 20 years old and you win the Junior World Cup, you are never quite sure what is going to happen to the guys afterwards and whether their careers are going to take off or not.
“We are very lucky that ten years later we are playing rugby in France and we are now European champions together as well. To celebrate with some South Africans in the same dressing room was really great. We make sure we don’t lose the language so every now and then we have a conversation in Afrikaans and make a joke and have a good laugh, just trying to stay true to the roots.”
Final compliments must go to O’Gara and the ambitious effect his promptings had on Leyds, a determination initially glimpsed at a September 2020 kid’s birthday party attended by the La Rochelle squad. “He has changed the mindset of so many of the players at the club. That day especially I will never forget because we were having a birthday party, having some fun and watching the game (a European quarter-final) and you could see how passionate he was and how desperately he wanted to win, create history and be part of a special group.
“His will to win is literally second to none, especially his passion for the Champions Cup. He just wanted us to so badly realise that in this group we had the potential and ability to do something special, we just needed to believe that. We showed that on the weekend and now we have tasted victory, I’m pretty sure we will be pushing to get some more stars on the jersey.”
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Leyds was particularly enamoured by how O’Gara handled his mid-season form dip, restoring the winger to his best to wielding influence in the European final. “Over the last three or so months I hadn’t really played too well and the way he handled that was really great. He said, ‘Look, I know you’re class and know what you’re capable of and I just need you to realise that. At the moment there are people playing better than you but I need you to get that chip back on your shoulder and prove why I back you so much’.
“I always appreciate the honesty towards me and how he treats the players. Even though I wasn’t playing the best rugby and he actually didn’t pick me for a couple of games, he believed that if he didn’t pick me I’d come back hungrier and wanting to prove him wrong. He was the first one to say that in the meeting after I came back and strung a couple of good performances together. His honesty, especially the support and the backing he showed me the last couple of months in a tough year, was really special.”
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