Richard Cockerill’s team fought with determination and no little skill, but the most impressive element of their play over the piece was their defence. But they also had the odd costly mistake at the back, notably when they conceded a try at the start of the second half, and in the end that was the difference between the sides.
The two teams had met just once before, in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup three years ago, when the French club went home with a 32-22 victory. There had been substantial changes in personnel on both sides since then, but while Edinburgh have become gradually more expansive, La Rochelle’s game plan remains very similar to what it was in 2017: try to steamroller the opposition into submission up front.
In anticipation of that forward onslaught, Cockerill had instructed his players to move play around as much as possible in a bid to tire out the French team’s heavyweights.
“The ball-in-play time is nearly ten minutes less in the Top14 than in the Pro14, so it’s important to move big guys like [Uini] Atonio as they are very good at what they do,” the coach had explained after announcing his team on Friday.
“We want to get them away from that comfort zone and move them around the field and create opportunities through fatigue, and get our most dangerous players trying to pick their forwards off in phase play. Physically we have to be at our best, as the set piece is always going to be critical.”
Yet for all their best-laid plans, the home side were under pressure right from kick-off, and they needed a massive scrum against the head from the five-metre line to get them out of trouble. The Edinburgh defence held up well on several occasions after that, and there were promising signs in counter-attack too, but eventually it was the visitors who scored first through a superbly struck Jules Plisson penalty from the halfway line.
That 12th-minute kick was the only score of the first quarter, although La Rochelle did come desperately close to extending their lead after Blair Kinghorn had fielded a high ball well but then thrown a loose pass. When the French attack gathered, the line appeared at their mercy, but Bill Mata put in a vital tackle. Referee Luke Pearce reviewed the incident to see if the Fijian No 8 had made contact early, but the ruling was no foul play.
Captain Stuart McInally then emulated his colleague with a magnificent tackle in the left corner on Tawera Kerr-Barlow. The scrum-half had seemed certain to score, but the hooker took him down and slid him into touch in one smooth movement.
In the end, though, the pressure told and La Rochelle claimed the try they had been threatening almost since kick-off. Full-back Jeremy Sinzelle made the difference by coming into the line, and with the home defence disjointed, left-winger Raymond Rhule had little difficulty in finishing off. Plisson’s missed conversion attempt sounded no more than a minor note of encouragement for an Edinburgh team who had done nothing up to that point to threaten the French line.
Some sort of fightback was needed before half-time, and it came five minutes from the break when La Rochelle strayed offside and Jaco van der Walt was on target with the penalty from right in front of the posts. A lengthy advantage had given Mata, among others, the chance to go for the line, but there was no breaking down a brutally efficient defence.
Plisson had another penalty attempt from the halfway line in the final seconds, but fell well short. The 8-3 halftime deficit flattered Edinburgh, but they were still within touching distance. To get back on terms in the second half they knew they had to stick to Cockerill’s game plan and keep moving La Rochelle around, in the hope that they would in the end prove themselves to be fitter.
Plisson did not reappear for the second half because of injury, but the loss of their playmaker did nothing to throw La Rochelle, who extended their lead within three minutes of the restart. Some indecision in the Edinburgh back line as Henry Pyrgos miscued a high ball allowed the French attack to kick on, Sinzelle gathered, and he had the strength to force his way over with a couple of defenders on his back to make it 13-3. Substitute Ihaia West missed the conversion, but it was a very ominous start to the half all the same.
Edinburgh opted to gamble when given a very kickable penalty, sending the ball to touch, and their adventure was rewarded when Blair Kinghorn won the race to touch down after Chris Dean had chipped through. Van der Walt missed the conversion attempt to leave the gap at five points.
Simon Berghan, Magnus Bradbury and then Rory Sutherland all came on to shore up the home pack, but La Rochelle continued to hold the upper hand. With quarter of an hour to go, West missed a penalty that would have denied Edinburgh even a losing bonus point.
Encouraged by that let-off, the home team fought hard in the closing stages in search of the full score that would give them a win against the odds. Five minutes from time they sent another two penalties to touch, but the French defence held firm.