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La Rochelle into maiden French Top 14 final, eye Toulouse revenge

·3-min read
Final bound: La Rochelle's players celebrate

La Rochelle reached the French Top 14 final for the first time on Friday with a 19-6 victory over Racing 92 and then eyed revenge for their European Champions Cup final loss to Toulouse.

Toulouse, who face Bordeaux-Begles in the second semi-final on Saturday, defeated La Rochelle 22-17 in the European showpiece last month.

Friday's win was a landmark achievement for La Rochelle who were only promoted to the top flight seven years ago.

Twice before they had fallen at the semi-final stage -- against Toulon (18-15) in 2017 and Toulouse (20-6) in 2019.

"We did it for all the former players, those who have built the club for the past ten years," said La Rochelle centre Jules Favre.

For Racing, it was a third loss in four years at the last-four hurdle.

In 2017 and 2018 they were defeated by the eventual champions Clermont (37-31) and Castres (19-14).

"When you lose in the semi-final, it's a failure," said Racing coach Laurent Travers.

"You only want to be in the final. We can't afford to say 'we're in the semi-finals, that's enough'. If you have ambitions and Racing has them, we want to be champions."

On Friday, in front of 5,000 spectators inside the football stadium of Ligue 1 champions Lille, La Rochelle shrugged off the injury absences of Pierre Bourgarit, the suspended Levani Botia as well as Jeremy Sinzelle, Pierre Aguillon and Geoffrey Doumayrou.

La Rochelle's New Zealand coach Jono Gibbes, who will replace Franck Azema at Clermont next season, had no hesitation in pairing South African Raymond Rhule and Favre at centre.

That was despite the intimidating presence of Virimi Vakatama and Gael Fickou on the other side.

"Playing at the Stade de France for the national team is magical but being able to play a first final for La Rochelle at the Stade de France, is huge. It's incomparable," said international back-rower Gregory Alldritt.

The match was also a contrast in styles with the La Rochelle forwards, boasting the best defence in the championship, putting their reputation on the line against a Racing team scoring points for fun since the arrival of Fickou mid-season.

However, Racing looked weary having had to see out a first round play-off last week with a 38-21 win over Paris rivals Stade Francais.

La Rochelle, by contrast, had enjoyed a two-week break having finished the regular season in second place and going straight to the semi-finals.

They scored the game's only try on the half-hour mark with winger Arthur Retiere crossing after linking up with full-back Brice Dulin.

New Zealand fly-half Ihaia West kicked five of six goals while Racing's only points came from two first-half penalties from Maxime Machenaud.

"There are a lot of emotions tonight. I'm very happy, the team too," added Favre.

"We were keen to take this step. We just focused on ourselves. Tonight, we were able to compete, even if, on paper, that's not what was predicted."

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