Edinburgh 22-32 La Rochelle: Hodge's men crash out of Europe
The home side paid the price for yet another slow start as the concession of four first-half tries for the second week running gave them too much to do.
There was a spirited fightback from Duncan Hodge’s side as they made a contest of it in the second half but there was to be no repeat of the comeback they pulled off against Stade Francais in the pool stage and the classy French always seemed to have another gear.
With Edinburgh lying ninth in the Guinness Pro12 this was the last chance to salvage something from what has been a poor campaign but, ultimately, it was not to be.
There was a late change to the La Rochelle line-up as their first-choice stand-off Brock James, who had been initially named on the bench, started the game as his fellow Aussie Zack Holmes failed to make it.
Edinburgh knew they were in for a testing evening against a side who are riding the crest of a wave this season and that was hammered home as the visitors dominated the early exchanges and, after some desperate home defending, registered the first try in the fourth minute as hooker Jeremie Maurouard burrowed over and James converted.
The procession of French possession continued and the same combination of Maurouard and James doubled the lead in the 13th minute with what was an almost carbon copy score.
Edinburgh had conceded four tries in the first half the previous Friday evening at Scarlets and this was the kind of start that coach Hodge must have been dreading.
A swift response was needed to prevent the match from slipping away before it had got going and centre Chris Dean’s line break sparked the first sign of Scottish resistance. Full-back Blair Kinghorn had a dart, too, before the French defence was breached and Phil Burleigh cut through for his second try in as many games.
Jason Tovey converted to halve the deficit but Edinburgh were undone by sloppiness once again as La Rochelle scrum-half Arthur Retiere was allowed to snipe down the left touchline from a ruck and Kinghorn fell off the tackle to concede an unconverted try.
It was the elusive little scrum-half who inflicted what looked to be the fatal wound in the closing minutes of the half as Retiere sliced Edinburgh open through the middle this time and put right wing Steve Barry in under the posts to open up an imposing 26-7 lead.
Going in at the break 19 points down would surely have been game over but Edinburgh showed resolve to dig in for a desperately needed foothold when skipper Ross Ford barged over in the left corner.
Tovey dragged the conversion wide and the home side still had a mountain to climb at 26-12 down heading into the second half. Edinburgh needed to come out firing at the start of the second half and they did just that with exactly the kind of tempo, intensity and focus that was required to haul themselves back into the contest.
The livewire Hamish Watson was at the heart of the resurgence, popping up to make the breaches as the French were driven back. Fittingly, it was the flanker who got the finishing touch and scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne banged over the extras after Tovey had limped off in the build-up to the score and was replaced by Duncan Weir.
Edinburgh were now within a converted score and a well worked turnover drove them back deep into French territory. Wing Damien Hoyland chased a grubber kick and was tackled off the ball by La Rochelle replacement Lekso Kaulashvili, who was sin-binned for his troubles.
Weir opted for the posts and his successful penalty cut the gap to four points as the home momentum continued to build and the energy began to crackle into life around the stadium.
That impetus was checked when James banged over another penalty to re-open the seven-point gap but Edinburgh continued to fight.
La Rochelle’s former All Blacks flanker Victor Vito was off the bench and, crucially, stripped possession to get French hands back on the ball heading into the last two minutes. A scrum penalty for not driving straight gave James the chance to pull his side ten points clear and into the semi-finals and the Aussie made no mistake.