The final of the 2020/2021 European Rugby Champions Cup saw an all-French affair take place at Twickenham Stadium, with the game switched to there from Stade de Marseille. Both teams were looking to outdo the other, and were at opposite ends of the scale in terms of finals experience; La Rochelle (officially Stade Rochelais) were in their first major final, whilst Toulouse (officially Stade Toulousain) were hoping to secure their fifth Champions Cup title, and would become the outright leader with the most titles if they did.
This tactical analysis will look at both sides’ tactics during the game, with the first half being tightly contested and edged by La Rochelle, whilst Toulouse came out after half-time with an open and more expansive playing style, helping them to win a game that either team could have snatched in the end.
La Rochelle Toulouse
15. B. Dulin 15. M. Medard
14. D. Leyds 14. C. Kolbe
13. G. Doumayrou 13. J. Cruz Mallia
12. L. Botia 12. P. Akhi
11. R. Rhule 11. M. Lebel
10. I. West 10. R. Ntamack
9. T. Kerr-Barlow 9. A. Dupont (c)
- D. Priso 1. C. Baille
- P. Bourgarit 2. P. Mauvaka
- U. Atonio 3. C. Faumuina
- R. Sazy (c) 4. Rory Arnold
- W. Skelton 5. Ritchie Arnold
- G. Alldritt 6. R. Elstadt
- K. Gourdon 7. F. Cros
- V Vito 8. J. Kaino
La Rochelle’s negatives
We will first focus on La Rochelle, analysing the negative parts of their performance.
There were notable signs of their early dominance with the ball, but they needed to have more composure with it. This was what let them down when they got into good areas, such as here. They have won a scrum in this image, with scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow moving the ball out to France full-back Brice Dulin. However, the pass is not tidy enough, and Dulin drops it forwards, giving Toulouse the chance to clear their lines from the resulting penalty.
These were the chances that La Rochelle needed to take, because, whilst they spent a lot of time in Toulouse’s half, they never looked like making their opportunities count. This came down to a simple lack of accuracy in key moments.
Nobody could say they weren’t trying different ways to break Toulouse’s sturdy defence down though. Here, fly-half Ihaia West has played a kick pass over the top of the defensive line, as the yellow arrow shows, aiming for the space behind. In doing so, he has given back row Victor Vito, in the blue circle, something to run onto, but the kick goes out of play on the full, ending the attack. By making these errors, La Rochelle kept allowing Toulouse to clear their lines, ending promising moves early, and this was another reason why they never looked like scoring.
La Rochelle’s positives
It wasn’t all bad, as we mentioned that there were plenty of positives in their play throughout the game.
La Rochelle’s biggest strength is their defence, which has been the best in the Top 14 this season, and is the reason for them currently sitting one point behind their opponents in the league, as well as their advance to the Champions Cup final. This image shows how they gave Toulouse no time to think when they were in possession, quickly closing each player down when they had the ball. This kept Toulouse pinned back, preventing their key players from getting anywhere near the La Rochelle try line, where they would be dangerous and difficult to stop.
It also forced Toulouse to move the ball around quicker than they perhaps wanted to, increasing the chance of them making a mistake, particularly with the ball being so slippery from the rain. Therefore, by maintaining a high intensity out of possession, La Rochelle ensured that Toulouse struggled to get into the game, which was one of the reasons why the scoreline was so low at half-time.
In the second half, with Toulouse posing more of a threat in attack, La Rochelle had to rely even more on their defending, especially as they were one player down, following Fiji centre Levani Botia’s red card after 30 minutes. Here, South African winger Raymond Rhule has tracked back to retrieve the ball, following Toulouse winger Cheslin Kolbe’s kick forwards.
Despite being a quick winger, Rhule played in a more defensive role after half-time, with La Rochelle constantly alive to their opponents’ tactical changes at all stages of the game, adapting their playing style to ensure that Toulouse had no easy space to exploit and that their win was not easy. Given it is their first major final, we need to give them credit for this.
Despite having to play more defensively in the second half, La Rochelle didn’t stop attacking altogether, and were always on the lookout for chances to get forward and put pressure on Toulouse’s back line. This image shows the try they scored late on, which got them back into the game in the last ten minutes and set up a nervy finale. This was their first clear attacking opportunity in the second half, and came after a penalty lineout and several resulting phases, with Kerr-Barlow, in the yellow circle, taking the ball and scoring through the gap on the line.
From Toulouse’s point of view, this was a poor try to concede, because they left the space open for La Rochelle to attack. We can see in the red circle how replacement back row Selevasio Tolofua has seen the ball, but expects it to be passed down the line. His small movement gave Kerr-Barlow the chance to score, so it was a try that could have been avoided.
This again shows how, even at this late stage and with the win looking seemingly beyond them, La Rochelle kept their focus and were still thinking tactically, and that is the key point to take from this.
Toulouse’s first half play
Toulouse like to play high-powered attacking rugby, but struggled to do so in the first half, because of the way La Rochelle were playing. Instead, they had to make do with clearing the ball from their own half when La Rochelle made a mistake, constantly relieving the pressure, but never able to launch any meaningful attacks.
Here, we see how they had a well-organised defensive structure, indicated by the red line, trying to keep La Rochelle as far back as possible. La Rochelle tried to get their ball-carrying forwards into the game, looking to make dents in the Toulouse line, but the likes of prop Uini Atonio, former Saracens lock Will Skelton, flanker Kevin Gourdon and versatile France back row Gregory Alldritt were constantly frustrated in this.
Toulouse were also capable of delivering big hits themselves, forcing La Rochelle backwards every time they ran at them, again helping to keep the first-time finalists back. This was a tactic that worked for them, and was another key reason for both sides having a low score at half-time.
It was interesting that, when Toulouse got the ball, they never kicked it straight back towards La Rochelle’s back line. Instead, as Thomas Ramos is doing here, they instantly ran forwards after collecting it, trying to get on the front foot and gain metres, as well as tiring out their opponents, who were one player down by this stage.
Ramos, who was a first-half Head Injury Assessment (HIA) substitute for full-back Maxime Medard (who later returned), runs into the La Rochelle players ahead of him here. This leads to Toulouse finding a way through on the nearside wing, with South Africa star Kolbe trying to set up fellow winger Matthis Lebel to run through, but the chance comes to nothing. However, the intent was there, which was important.
Toulouse’s second half changes
The Toulouse coaching staff were visibly frustrated with their side’s lack of attacking threat in the first half, and the message at half-time would surely have been to get forward more and try new things, which is exactly what happened in the second half.
Here, the ball is on the ground, with Toulouse in possession. Hooker Peato Mauvaka, in the red circle, has got to it ahead of France scrum-half Antoine Dupont, but, rather than passing, he picks it up and runs forward with it, offloading to Dupont, who then sets up 2019 World Cup winner Kolbe to run towards the try line. A brilliant tackle from La Rochelle centre Geoffrey Doumayrou dragged him into touch at the last minute, but this was the first indication of the open rugby that Toulouse wanted to play in the second half, and was a warning sign for La Rochelle of what would come in the remainder of the match.
This image shows another example of Toulouse’s newfound attacking intent, with Medard seeing the space and kicking through for Lebel to chase it. Again, it didn’t lead to anything, with La Rochelle winger Dillyn Leyds getting back to make the tackle, but it was another sign of Toulouse’s confidence. They made kick passes into spaces more often after half-time, creating try-scoring opportunities behind the La Rochelle defence, keeping the pressure on their opponents and stopping them from getting forwards as often as they had done in the first half.
However, the fact that both of these opportunities were stopped prematurely is due to La Rochelle’s robustness in defence, so, whilst Toulouse were on the front foot, they were still finding it difficult to make their second-half dominance count.
It took until just before the hour for them to make the breakthrough, with another France international, fly-half Romain Ntamack, playing a starring role in their only try of the game, making the long pass out to the wing here. This is a different way of finding and using the space, compared to the other two images in this section, so shows again how they were more adventurous in the second half with their attacking play.
What was clever about this was that Ntamack’s pass was aimed towards Kolbe, but Tolofua ran in to meet it at pace, catching La Rochelle’s players out. This made it harder for them to get back in time, giving Tolofua more space to run into. By then pulling the La Rochelle defenders towards him, he gave Argentina centre Juan Cruz Mallia the gap to run through and score the try. It was really good awareness from Ntamack to see the space initially and have the confidence to go for it, having noticed that La Rochelle had drifted inside and left the wide channel open.
Ultimately, Toulouse’s new attacking tactics got them the win and the title, as they looked to increasingly exploit their numerical advantage in the second half, finding spaces and creating opportunities, and La Rochelle looked unlikely to keep them out forever.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical analysis how La Rochelle had the better first half, but Toulouse made tactical changes in the second half to give them the win. It was clear that the cagey play before half-time did not do either side many favours, so the game needed to open up to find a winner, and the team who made the first step in this always looked more likely to take the win.
As well as their change in tactics, Toulouse’s experience of finals also gave them an advantage, but La Rochelle should be proud of their performance, as they made it very difficult for their opponents throughout the game, and, on this performance, they will be back in a major final in the not-to-distant future.