Leinster celebrate a try by Jimmy O'Brien. [Inpho/Billy Stickland]

Heartbreak for Leinster again as La Rochelle retain title at Aviva

La Rochelle 27; Leinster 26

After the ecstasy of a three-try start in the first 15 minutes an a 17-0 lead at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, Leinster’s ultimate fate was the agony of another late, late defeat for the third time in a row - the second in the Champions Cup final - at the hands of Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle.

The French may own the term “deja vu” but it was solely Leinster who felt the heartbreak of another such defeat when they looked good to enter the winner’s enclosure.

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They must now have an O’Gara and a La Rochelle nightmare every night since Saturday evening’s defeat and the bad dream will likely continue until they manage to add a fifth start to their jersey’s crest down the line.

With both sides reduced to 14 men late on, Leinster mounted a last gasp effort to score and were camped on the French line when replacement prop  Michael Ala'alatoa was given a red card by Jaco Peyper for what he considered a dangerous clear-out on the line which left an opponent out-cold.

With 90 seconds to go and down to 13 men, the reigning champions delivered the resultant penalty to touch and then played down the clock to record famous back to back victories against the same opposition.

This time they got the vital touch down with seven minutes remaining on the clock but they were able to hold out despite intense home pressure.  So no fairytale ending for departing senior coach Stuart Lancaster or Johnny Sexton, who was badly missed for his on-field generalship when the chips were down.

 Dan Sheehan  with a brace of touchdowns and another exemplary finish from Jimmy O’Brien, saw the home side 17-0 up with  Ross Byrne hitting uprights twice with two of his three unsuccessful conversions. They proved costly in the end as was his decision with six minutes left not to go for a long-range penalty. Instead he kicked to the corner and while Leinster held possession for a long time, they were unable to break down the teak-touch La Rochelle resistance.

La Rochelle Head Coach Ronan O’Gara celebrates the victory with his mother Joan. [Inpho/Dan Sheridan]

In retrospect Leinster’s first-half of almost total dominance came at a costly price as they were short of energy and invention when they needed both in the final quarter.

Only Josh van de Flier played like a Duracell bunny for the 80 minutes, though it definitely cost the home side when skipper James Ryan had to depart with a suspected concussion after half an hour and with injury hit Tadgh Furlong coming ashore  with over half an hour of the second half still to play.

The beaten finalists from 2019 and 2022, only managed to score three points in the second moiety. La Rochelle chipped at the lead and when out-half Antoine Hastoy converted Georges Henri Colombe's try,  it was the first time the French side led in this pulsating encounter.

Afterward Head Coach Leo Cullen candidly admitted that La Rochelle "had their number".

"It was an amazing game, I thought the guys came out of the traps very quickly and were really clinical in terms of taking opportunities. Second half was a bit different, we couldn’t exit that area of the field quick enough.

"Too much continued pressure on ourselves, we are bitterly disappointed. Credit to La Rochelle, they stuck in there and came away with a famous win. It’s devastating for the guys, it means so much to everyone, a big thanks to the supporters, sorry we couldn’t get it done this year. Obviously, everyone is bitterly disappointed. Credit to La Rochelle.

"We came up with some big turnovers at different stages but then we weren’t accurate in some of the clearances so again, just that wave after wave of pressure. Credit to La Rochelle, they had our number,” he said.

"We have a group of players who come through the academy for the most part. Stay motivated and stay hungry and we’ll get there some day,” he added.

Leinster: H Keenan; J O'Brien, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; R Molony, J Ryan (capt); C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan Replacements: R Kelleher, C Healy, M Ala'alatoa, J Jenkins, R Baird, C Ngatai.