The Irish province and URC league leaders were warm favourites to lift Europe’s premier trophy for a fifth time in Marseille, but an immense defensive performance from the French outfit kept them in the game and a late try by Arthur Retire clinched La Rochelle’s glory.
It was a sweet moment for La Rochelle’s Irish coach Ronan O’Gara and their passionate fans who had travelled across France for the match, especially considering they lost the final last year against Toulouse at Twickenham. This is La Rochelle’s first-ever Champions Cup success.
They scored three tries via Retire, Raymond Rhule and Pierre Bourgarit, while Leinster were unable to cross the whitewash and relied on penalties from their veteran stand-off Jonny Sexton, plus a further kick from Adam Byrne.
Leinster did hold a commanding 18-10 lead at one point and had a man advantage going into the final quarter of the match when La Rochelle’s Thomas Lavault was sinbinned, but the Top 14 side rallied bravely and put Leinster under enormous pressure, finally making the decisive breakthrough on 79 minutes when an outstretched Retire scored his team’s final try.
"I was pretty confident after 12 minutes and then we were inaccurate, ill-discipline, soft potential penalties that gave then an into the game," said a triumphant O’Gara.
"I knew defensively the way we set up we wouldn’t really let them play. We did a lot of homework, the Connacht game in Galway and the Leicester game gave me enough ammunition to work with.
"We could see that if you stand off them it’s going to be like the Aviva, they are very very strong in the Aviva but thankfully today was in Marseilles.
"Leinster always score tries and there was a message during the week that we’d have to score tries. 3-6-9 wasn’t going to be enough and it nearly was enough for Leinster.
"But there was great heart. At 18-10 we could have tolled over, said ‘OK it’s Leinster, they’re going for their fifth star’. But I think this is the start of something special here I hope."
O’Gara won the tournament as a player with Leinster’s great Irish rivals Munster and asked to compare what it is like to succeed as a player and a coach, O’Gara responded: "It’s very very different. The great thing when you’re a player, even if you’ve an average game you release emotions. When you’re a coach, it’s pent up.
"We’ve all nationalities, you're speaking pigeon English, they’re looking at you going 'why should we believe you, coach'. I'm going 'stay with me here, we can do this'.
"It feels a little bit surreal but we wake up tomorrow morning as European champions."
Leinster will now need to dust themselves down for next Saturday’s URC Final Eight clash with Glasgow Warriors in Dublin. Their head coach, Leo Cullen, described the manner of defeat as “sickening”.
"It has not really hit home," said Cullen. “We are licking our wounds. It came down to fine margins and a couple of defensive sets.
"But there is probably a story before that as well in how we got into that situation.
"In the last 15 minutes we could have been better. It is a sickener, but credit to La Rochelle."