In a year where France and Ireland battled it out on the international stage in the men’s Six Nations, it’s certainly fitting that this year’s Heineken Champions Cup final will also be contested by two teams from European rugby’s in-form nations.
Once again, European club rugby’s showpiece event will be played in France after a seven-year absence, and for the first time, it will be taking place in the picturesque Marseille.
Reaching the final of this competition is a fantastic achievement in and of itself, perhaps even more so this season given the extra step of a two-legged round of 16 tie. That said, you get the feeling neither side will be fully satisfied should they emerge from the Stade Vélodrome without something shiny to show for it, particularly when you consider that their two head coaches, Leo Cullen and Ronan O’Gara, won a combined five titles as players themselves.
While trying to predict the final of any major sporting event is always an arduous task, let’s attempt to dissect the data and identify the key areas in which this massive clash could be decided.
In the blue corner, we have Leinster, striving to equal Toulouse’s record haul of five Champions Cup titles. Three players from Leinster’s maiden cup-winning side of 2009 remain in the squad, with Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Devin Toner all looking to become the first players ever to win five titles. They already form part of an elite band of four players with four titles to their name, alongside another Leinster legend, Isa Nacewa. It’s perhaps a sign of their pedigree that they will be coached by their captain from that day, Leo Cullen, for the second time in a European final.
An impressive run to the final has seen Leinster skilfully dispatch provincial rivals Connacht, Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers and Heineken Champions Cup holders Toulouse. The 40 points they scored in that semi-final against Toulouse was the second-highest tally a team has ever registered at that stage of the competition, and whether you’re watching them live, or delving into their statistics, it’s hard to find a major chink in Leinster’s armour.
Their average attacking ruck speed of 2.8 seconds in the semi-final proved too quick for even the reigning champions to cope with. It is this rapid recycling of the ball which has allowed them to bring their glut of ball carriers to the fore and led to them leading the competition in terms of carries (876), running meters (6,518m), line breaks (70) and defenders beaten (203) this season, also ranking in the top two in each of those categories on a per match basis.
As impressive as their attacking game has been this year, Leinster have also impressed massively when on the back-foot in games, registering a 91% tackle success rate, the best in the competition. Consequently, they have only had their defensive line breached 2.7 times per game this season, and are the only side with an average of lower than three in this regard.
Former All-Black Jermy Kaino recently claimed that Leinster are performing at a level that is typically only seen by top tier international sides, and given their recent performances and the fact that 13 of their starting XV against Toulouse featured prominently in Ireland’s triple-crown win this year, it’s hard to disagree with him.
Key Player: James Lowe
There can be little debate as to how well James Lowe has settled in at Leinster since making the move over from Super Rugby’s Chiefs in 2017, having seemingly improved season upon season since. Even by his own lofty standards, Lowe is enjoying an incredibly rich vein of form at the moment. His eight tries in four knockout stage matches, an average of one every 40 minutes, has been a key catalyst in Leinster’s advancement to this stage. Should Lowe cross the line again in the final, he will equal Chris Ashton’s all-time record of 11 tries in a single Champions Cup Campaign.
Far from being selfish with the ball though, Lowe has also very much been a team player for Leinster this term, finding himself in the top 10 for both try assists (5) and break-assist passes (4) in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Lowe also possesses a notoriously robust left boot, and is the only back-three player with over 1,000 kicking meters to his name in the competition this campaign (1,057m). Should Leinster go on to claim their record-equalling fifth Champions Cup title, Lowe’s kicks could be vital in pushing back a Stade Rochelais team with the best territory percentage in this year’s competition.
Stade Rochelais will be competing in their second consecutive Heineken Champions Cup final, aiming to finally get their hands on the trophy that eluded them in Twickenham last May and avoid joining Clermont and Racing 92 as French rugby’s perennial bridesmaids.
Stade Rochelais have already proven themselves as one of the very few teams in club rugby capable of beating Leinster, being the only side that the province have lost to over the course of the last two Heineken Champions Cup campaigns. A look at the statistics from last year’s semi-final between the two sides reveals Leinster had a superior number of carries and running meters, as people have come to expect from the side. However, Stade Rochelais still managed to claw an advantage for themselves in certain key areas, bettering Leinster’s numbers in terms of defenders beaten, clean breaks and turnovers won.
Should they stand a chance of defeating Leinster again, they will need to replicate that ability to frustrate their attack and pierce through their iron-clad defence on the rare occasions they’re given the opportunity to do so. However, given Leinster’s outstanding defensive numbers this season, that could prove to be an even more formidable task this time around.
With points at such a premium against Leinster, Stade Rochelais will be hoping for a significant improvement in form from regular goal-kicker Ihaia West, who experienced a torrid time from the tee against Racing 92 in the semis. West slotted just 25% of his attempts despite an average kick prediction of 79%, costing his side 5.8 expected points, a margin which would have swung three of the last four Champions Cup finals.
Pierre Popelin also missed both of the kicks he attempted once he came off the bench, making it a bad day all round from the tee.
Key Player: Gregory Alldritt
Man of the match in their semi-final victory over Racing 92 and a try-scorer in their semi-final win over Leinster last season, Alldritt is the very definition of a modern-day back-row player.
Alldritt’s 113 carries in this year’s Champions Cup is 41 more than the next most frequent ball-carrier, Leinster’s Caelan Doris (71), and a record high for a French player in the competition since Stats Perform have recorded this data (since 2009-10). Alldritt also sits second in terms of defenders beaten this year, with his tally of 28 at least 11 more than any other forward. Far from just being a dominant ball-carrier though, Alldritt also possesses the joint-second highest number of breakdown steals this season (7), only trailing Munster’s Peter O’Mahony (10).
Also ranking highly for successful tackles and offloads, there’s scarcely an area of the game in which Alldritt is not able to positively influence his side.
Leinster will head into the match as favourites, but Stade Rochelais are a team who have often thrived as underdogs. It’s been less than a decade since they attained top-flight status in France, and having fallen at the final hurdle against Toulouse in both the Top 14 and Champions Cup finals last year, they will fancy their chances at re-writing history in both competitions this time around, with the Maritimers also very much in Top 14 play-off contention again this term.
However, as much as Stade Rochelais will embrace their underdog tag, Leinster are a team who seldom crumble under the weight of expectation and will be bullish in their attempt to add a fifth Champions Cup crown to their already packed trophy cabinet.
As with any final of this magnitude, it’s likely to go down to the wire. Whoever emerges victorious on the French coast, their success this season will have been thoroughly well-deserved.
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