Champions Cup final: The key battlegrounds

La Rochelle's head coach Ronan O'Gara, celebrates with Tawera Kerr-Barlow after making the Heineken Champions Cup Final at Stade Bollaert-Delelis
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This weekend sees the biggest game in the European club rugby calendar. The Champions Cup final is finally here. Last year’s beaten finalists, La Rochelle, are back for another shot at glory. Opponents Leinster are looking to add yet another star to their jersey. In a game of such magnitude every collision could prove crucial to victory but what are the key battlegrounds that will decide the outcome on Saturday.

The battle at 10 and the Champions Cup final experience

Johnny Sexton v Ihaia West is a clash of two players crucial to their teams. Captain Sexton is the heartbeat of Leinster and is central to everything good at the club. The attack runs through him and his demanding standards bring out the best in those around him. West on the other hand goes about his business in a much quieter fashion. The kiwi flyhalf moves his team around the pitch and kicks his goals excellently, but with the galaxy of superstars that run out for the French side each week, his impact is very much understated.

This is a matchup of vastly different experience levels. Sexton has been there and done it for club and country and put in one of the greatest rugby performances to drag his side to victory against Northampton in 2011. His performance and longevity raise the debate on whether he is Ireland’s greatest ever standoff.

West however is a European rugby baby in comparison. The final last year was his first-ever in the competition and despite turning out for the Maori All Blacks, he boasts no test appearances for the main New Zealand side. The one thing that West does have though is the experience of beating Leinster and Johnny Sexton. In last year’s semi-final, West was one of the men that helped give La Rochelle a shot at the trophy. Experience can mean a lot and while Sexton wins on the amount of experience between the two sides, West has the knowledge that he can beat Leinster.

The power game

Saturday will see two massive packs go head to head. The high skill level forwards of the Irish province will look to neutralise the power game from their French opposition. In the semi-finals, Leinster was able to tire out the giant Toulouse pack with their high ball in playtime. This led to gaps in the visitor’s defence that those in blue poured through without a second invitation. Leinster will look to repeat this and had the luxury of resting many of their players for the challenge.

 

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La Rochelle though has Ronan O’Gara as their coach and he will have seen what his opponents did in the previous round and if there is a coach in world rugby right now with the intellect to find a solution, it is the Ireland legend.

The teams are yet to be announced but both sides will hope all of their stars can play a part. For Leinster, the potential loss of Furlong would be a monumental blow as he simply is a player that has it all. He is well known for his exceptional scrummaging ability but we have now seen he has the hands of a centre that can punish teams if their defence is too tight.

La Rochelle is hopeful that Vito will be fit as he has become an inspirational presence for the French side. Additionally, there is a chance that Will Skelton will make an appearance. Skelton will be hungry for success after winning this tournament with Saracens but failing to replicate that so far with his new employers. His unique brand of play combined with his improved fitness levels means he has become one of the best locks in the game today.

If La Rochelle can get the ascendency in the set-piece and dictate the tempo of the game, they will be halfway to victory. However, if Leinster can match them upfront then expect the high ball in playtime to take its toll. Players such as Antonio for La Rochelle are highly effective but their size comes at a cost.

Attacking styles that have dominated the Champions Cup

Both teams are lethal in attack but go about their work ball in hand in very different ways. Leinster will wear teams down with their excellent multiphase play that keeps teams not just tackling again and again but also thinking about where the next point of attack will be as the incredible handling of the Irish team’s forwards and backs constantly shifts to point of contact in search of weak points. It proved too much for last year’s champions so could it also beat the other finalists?

Conversely, La Rochelle will want to loosen the game up ball in hand. This will allow their x-factor players to find, or in some cases create their own holes. The South African wing partnership of Rhule and Lleyds both have all the skills required of a modern-day winger but where they shine is the ball in hand and open space in front of them. If Leinster allows this to happen they could be in for a very tough day defensively. If the backs of La Rochelle are unable to find space out wide though the Alldritt will drag his team forward. The French international has been averaging over 100 metres made per game in the competition this season.

La Rochelle’s defence will have plenty of danger out wide to deal with themselves as James Lowe has taken his performances to another level this season. With ten tries in the competition and 23 defenders beaten, he is one of the most deadly in Europe. Meanwhile, Gibson-Park has developed into one of the best scrum-halves in world rugby. His quick thinking will look to keep last year’s finalists honest around the breakdown.

Henshaw v Danty

These are two players that epitomise their team’s styles. Henshaw is incredibly consistent and adaptable. We have seen him play across the backline internationally and this rounded skillset makes him indispensable to Ireland and Leinster. Danty has had a new lease of life since his move to La Rochelle and his strong, direct running saw him win back a place in the international setup and help France to a grand slam.

Critically for both teams, each player is equally high quality in defence as well. This is something which will be very important as finals are rarely high scoring affairs so shutting down opportunities for the opponent will go a long way to winning the game. The attack can make you a good side but without a strong defence, you are unlikely to win titles. Which inside centre will get the upper hand in this Champions Cup final?

Concluding remarks for the Champions Cup final

Ultimately while each little battle in the field will go a long way to deciding the result in Marseille, it will be a full team performance that will be required to be named champions of Europe. The question is will Leinster get revenge for last year or will La Rochelle win their first-ever Champions Cup?

It is an exciting match as Leinster defeated an impressive Leicester side in the Champions Cup quarterfinals while La Rochelle is in their second-consecutive Champions Cup finals appearance. Fans can watch the game between these two teams on Saturday, May 28 at 4:45 p.m. GMT. Fans can watch the game live on BT Sports 2 and Channel 4 (source: wheres the match).