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By Gavin Mairs, Chief Rugby Correspondent at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Any concerns that the Heineken Champions Cup had lost its lustre have been laid to waste. With plans agreed to return the competition format to traditional pool stages next season, this, arguably the greatest ever final, should give it the necessary kick-start it requires.
All the colour, drama and suspense and human narrative that gives this competition its point of difference from Test rugby was back in spades while the quality of the contest was utterly compelling.
It was at this stadium in January 1999 that Ulster’s final victory over Colomiers saved the competition from unravelling after the English clubs had decided to boycott it. On Saturday it was La Rochelle’s heroics, producing the greatest final comeback we have witnessed, that should ensure the competition returns to its rightful place at the top of European and now also South African club rugby.
The scenes of La Rochelle fans celebrating the victory around le vieux port underscored the sense that this was one of club rugby’s greatest occasions.
Like any great encounter, there was an edge to it too. La Rochelle felt disrespected by their opposition, from an alleged disparity in the facilities available to them to a perceived slight by Leinster captain James Ryan at the coin toss with Greg Alldritt.
BACK TO BACK FOR LA ROCHELLE! 🏆🏆
HEARTBREAK FOR LEINSTER! 💔#ITVRugby | #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/ODuh7EIDgJ
“Obviously I have a close relationship with my captain,” said O’Gara. "[It was] a bizarre action when they were going for the toss.
“Normally you engage eyes, and no eyes were engaged. Greg was disappointed and let down. There was a little bit of that in terms of… obviously Leinster were the home team in terms of accommodation for the families, post-match gigs.
“I think we’re in Lansdowne [Rugby Club], we couldn’t get a room in this place [Aviva Stadium]. It’s disappointing on that front but we’ve got to accept that we’re seen as the little team, but that’s about to change.”
It is understood there was also a testy exchange between O’Gara and Sean O’Brien, the Leinster contact skills coach, in the tunnel at half-time and EPCR issued a statement on Saturday night saying it was investigating the matter.
“EPCR is aware of reports of an incident at half-time during the Heineken Champions Cup final at the Aviva Stadium and the tournament organiser will be investigating this as soon as practicable,” it said.
A besuited Johnny Sexton, whose presence was sorely missed by Leinster because of his long-term groin injury could be seen questioning referee Jaco Peyper at the end of the game.
The pantomime backdrop only added to the spectacle, which was of Test quality in all but name.
La Rochelle’s overwhelming power during the second half was extraordinary and was matched only by the extent of Leinster’s heartbreak at missing out on a record-equalling fifth title.
O’Gara, the wily Munsterman who had last year courted the England job, has now underscored his status as one of the great club coaches in Europe, while his opposite number, Leo Cullen, simply looked devastated at the end. One wonders what Leinster must do to end their now six-year wait for their next title.
Leinster knew their victory would have to be founded on the tempo of their contest in order to move La Rochelle’s giant forwards around the pitch and with Dan Sheehan’s scoring after just 40 seconds from a clinical line-out move, it looked possible. At one point Leinster’s average ruck speed was clocked at just 2.4 seconds, with La Rochelle’s twice this figure.
Here’s the DREAM way to start Champions Cup final 🤩#ITVRugby | #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/PtzyGbZKpP
Sheehan would score again while Jimmy O’Brien also crossed during this ferocious purple patch, but in truth the tide had begun to turn before the end of the first half, with tries by Jonathan Danty and UJ Seuteni reducing the deficit to nine points.
Leinster are running riot!
Jimmy O’Brien scores the second to send the Aviva into raptures! 🏉#ITVRugby | #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/GpTqqgvXrR
Two penalties by Antoine Hastoy edged La Rochelle into striking range and although Leinster produced a courageous defensive effort in the final quarter, they were eventually overpowered, the visitors taking the lead in the 73rd minute with a try by Georges-Henri Colombe.
There would still be one more twist as Leinster launched one final rally, hammering the La Rochelle defensive line and winning a five-metre scrum with just two minutes remaining as the play was stopped when Colombe required medical attention.
Television reviews revealed he had been struck on the head by a dangerous collision by Leinster prop Michael Ala'alatoa, who was sent off, reducing the Irish province to 13 men, and ending their hopes of snatching the lead at the death.
“It’s truly spectacular,” added O’Gara. “We were 17-0 down, I don’t know how they found a way but they found a way. I am very proud of them. That was special, that was probably as hard as you’re going to get but fair play. I don’t think we got the rub of the green from Jaco [Peyper] either but I have to work with referees so I have to compose myself on that front."
Having lost last season’s final to La Rochelle in similarly dramatic fashion, Cullen’s side now finish the season without any silverware, following last weekend’s URC semi-final defeat by Munster, a disappointing end to Stuart Lancaster’s seven-year tenure with the province.
“It was pretty devastating,” said Cullen. “We started really well. We probably had some opportunities to be even further ahead in the first half. We just couldn’t quite exit on our terms. It is the smallest of margins, painful. The players are devastated at the moment, it will take some time to get over.”
The pain will be felt by Lancaster too. The former England head coach, who is joining Racing 92 as head coach next season, has been instrumental in evolving this Leinster squad into a formidable outfit, much to the benefit of the Ireland side too. He deserved more.
It's been a real pleasure to watch that game alongside you all today. A true classic in every sense of the world and a match which had absolutely everything!
Leading by example 💛
The 2023 EPCR Player of the Year is @StadeRochelais skipper, Grégory Alldritt 🏆
#HeinekenChampionsCup | #EPOTY2023 pic.twitter.com/FDNXfcHoz9
It’s truly spectacular. We were 17-0 down, I don’t know how they found a way but they found a way. I am very proud of them. That was special, that was probably as hard as you’re going to get but fair play. I don’t think we got the rub of the green from Jaco [Peyper] either but I have to work with referees so I have to compose myself on that front. For Leo and his staff and team it is horrible. There’s only one team who gets to be satisfied and the other side is deep depression and I want to commend them
Question for Leinster fans – do you think you stopped playing in the second half, or was that due to pressure from La Rochelle?
Scenes in La Rochelle after their #HeinekenChampionsCup final win over Leinster – all vantage points taken pic.twitter.com/NA0W9AWVmM
It was pretty devastating. We started really well. We probably had some opportunities to be even further ahead in the first half. We just couldn’t quite exit on our terms. You have to give La Rochelle a huge amount of credit. We started well and opposition are going to come back into it. It is the smallest of margins, painful. The players are devastated at the moment, it will take some time to get over.
🗣 " We've witnessed greatness here today"
🗣 "Never seen anything like it, just astonishing"
A Champions Cup Final Classic! 👏
,#ITVRugby | #HeinikenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/UElrznQkz0
Le Vieux port exulte !! 🤩 « Ici, ici c’est La Rochelle » 🟡⚫️ #ChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/lJjkYM8WUu
An absorbing European Champions Cup final and an incredible, battling performance from the Champions, La Rochelle.
Ronan O’Gara you Munster legend #HeinekenChampionsCup
That has to be up there as one of if not the greatest comeback in the history of the Champions Cup! Congratulations La Rochelle! What a match! 🟡⚫🏆🏉 #LEIvLAR #HeinekenChampionsCup
What a final that was. It's a shame for Leinster after the lead they had, but credit to La Rochelle. Brilliant comeback. Great game to watch as a neutral, but it must be gutting for the Leinster fans. 🏉 #HeinekenChampionsCup
What a performance by @staderochelais v @leinsterrugby @ITVRugby – superb game management & power in the second half. Congrats to Ronan O’Gara coaching his team to back to back #HeinekenChampionsCup titles!
There's only one @RonanOGara10 ✨#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/XBS1VdHuWz
Alldritt and Boudehent take the trophy before walking over the team and lifting it amongst the players and staff. Th sky is filled with yellow and blue and the party begins.
That winning feeling! 🏆 🏆
A second Champions Cup for La Rochelle!#ITVRugby | #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/YHXajFAOv3
Colombe Reazel is out celebrating on the pitch, which is great news after that awful hit at the end of the game. A great ending to the afternoon.
It feels great, Leinster are a top outfit and it showed in that first ten minutes. Credit to our staff and the boys buying into the plan. All week awe spoke about staying in it. Last year we were down by eight and this year we were down by nine so nothing was really different. We knew if we kept the ball we would do damage. Ronan O’Gara is a special man. I’m so tired I can’t talk!
It's time to confess your sins. Did you, like me, think that La Rochelle had no chance after that opening salvo from Leinster. Get into the comments and let us know!
💛 ON L'A FAIT, ON EST DOUBLE CHAMPIONS D'EUROPE !!!!
QUE C'EST FUCKING BON DE LA GAGNER À DUBLIN LES GARS !#LEIvSR | #ChampionsCup | #FievreSR pic.twitter.com/AKOI94s6rG
That is an all-time game of rugby, let alone a Champions Cup final. A true classic that saw La Rochelle show incredible bravery and brute force to get back into the game following a lightning start from Leinster. Simply incredible viewing.
It's booted out! La Rochelle win their second back-to-back Champions Cup!
BACK TO BACK FOR LA ROCHELLE! 🏆🏆
HEARTBREAK FOR LEINSTER! 💔#ITVRugby | #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/ODuh7EIDgJ
Penalty La Rochelle! They take their time and boot it out for a lineout near the halfway line. 40 seconds to immortality.
It's judged as dangerous and we have a red card for Ala'alatoa, so it's 14 on 13 for the final few minutes here.
BACK TO BACK FOR LA ROCHELLE! 🏆🏆
HEARTBREAK FOR LEINSTER! 💔#ITVRugby | #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/ODuh7EIDgJ
Oh my. They're showing a replay of the hit that saw Colombe Reazel and it's a seriously nasty one. Reazel is rucking with his head down and the Leinster man comes in with his shoulder. That's nasty and it looks like it knocks Reazel out cold as he buckles backwards. That has to be a card!
Jaco Peyper blows the whistle to stop the action. There's an injury and it looks serious. The medical cart is called.
The ball pops out of the side as Leinster attack and it's into La Rochelle hands. They boot is clear but it's a bad kick and sliced, gaining them nearly no yardage and Leinster get another chance to attack. Was that La Rochelle's chance to close it out?
Leinster win the lineout and look to be making no ground but Ngatai goes on a one-man wrecking mission and it takes three La Rochelle players to bring him down just a metre from the line. Leinster try and find space to pop it over on the line but the FRrench defence stands tall.
Huge drama here. Danty puts in a high tackle inside the La Rochelle half and he's given a yellow, evening the teams at 14 each. In the meantime Leinster kick for touch and earn the lineout. Can they reclaim the lead here?
It finally works. La Rochelle's incredible rolling maul gets them the score. They get another advantage as Leinster bring it down but this time the French team don't mess it up. They continue and eventually Colombe gets over the line.
What's more is that it's converted to give La Rochelle a one-point lead. However, Leinster will need to do it with 14 men after Kelleher gets sinbinnned for brining down the maul.
Buckle up, we’re in for a TESNE final 10 minutes 🤯#HeinekenChampionsCup | @staderochelais pic.twitter.com/kYqcASkhte
My word! This La Rochelle maul is unstoppable. It's brought down again and the French team get the advantage, they carry on but it's held up and La Rochelle kick for another lineout and maul. Leinster are hugely lucky not to get a yellow card there.
La Rochelle win their lineout from around 10 metres. The maul gets rumbling but it's collapsed giving them the penalty. That doesn't stop La Rochelle who power on but a knock-on means they go back to the original penalty. The French team kick for the lineout again. Huge moments ahead.
TO THE CORNER! IT'S MAUL TIME!
What do I know! La Rochelle get the penalty after Leinster win the scrum. The big question is whether they get the easy three from around the 22 marker or do they kick for the corner and get that rolling maul going.
The first scrum attempt comes down. You feel like La Rochelle need a penalty here. They've dominated this half but can't quite get the try. Starting to feel like Leinster's day.
The Leinster defence are standing strong to La Rochelle's aggression, as they turn the ball over again. Huge stuff from the Irish team and we see another raft of changes from La Rochelle.
Gibson-Park goes for the chip but it's hauled in by Rhule, who gets tackled in the air and La Rochelle get the penalty and clear it.
A frantic series of play sees Henshaw turn the ball over when La Rochelle have promising possession and then it just gets pinged from team to another with the boot. Ultimately Dulin boots it into the crowd.
Henshaw can't continue any longer and he's off for Ngatai, while Gibson-Park stays on despite what looks like a shoulder injury.
A poor error from Danty sees him fumble a pass having taken his eye of it. Leinster have a scrum in their own 22 but the major news is a series of replacements with La Rochelle's big boys being replaced by their even bigger boys. It's going to be all power for this final 20 minutes.
A monster of a turnover sees Porter gain a momentum shift for Leinster. La Rochelle mauled for metre after metre following the lineout. Their power was making them so much ground and we'll see them use that again, but they will be gutted to give up the ball just 10-15 metres from the Leinster try-line.
A break in the play sees Henshaw and Skelton receiving treatment with Skelton seemingly using up about five rolls of tape around his legs. Thankful for the pause and the chance to take in some air ahead of what will be a huge final 25 minutes.
The atmosphere here is unreal. Hastoy can't get on the garryowen and it's picked from the sky by Keenan and the stadium erupts. Then just seconds later Lowe's poor kick, out on the full, is greeted by incredible noise from the pocket of La Rochelle fans.
A huge, and I mean HUGE, turnover for Leinster. La Rochelle have the ball in a dangerous position and Danty surges down the left flank but he's taken down and that man, Dan Sheehan, manages to turn the ball over. Incredible stuff.
In the build up to that we saw Sazy replaced by Lavault for La Rochelle.
Who wins this final? I simply can't call it right now. Leinster have the points, they have the home crowd but they look to be flagging in the face of La Rochelle power. Simply incredible.
The six-point lead is back with Hastoy slotting another penalty home for La Rochelle. It was awarded against Leinster in the breakdown. This game is simply wild.
A great passage of play from Leinster. A French knock-on gives Leinster a scrum. It also sees Furlong replaced by Alla'alatoa. Leinster emerge with the ball form their scrum and Gibson-Park goes for the grubber but Kerr-Barlow puts it down before the Leinster scrummie can.
It doesn't matter though with the ref taking us back for a penalty which Byrne scores to regain the nine point lead.
La Rochelle have the ball around the halfway line and a ball to Dulin finds a crease. The fullback accelerates into the space, juggling the ball as he attempts to haul in the pass. Leinster just about manage to bring him down before the line but they give up a penalty, which Hastoy puts through the sticks. Just six points in it.
In all the chaos of that first half James Ryan got taken off for an HIA. We haven't seen him back as expected which probably means it'll be Jenkins for the remainder of the game.
We're back underway here with a La Rochelle boot into Leinster territory.
Whisper it quietly but this game could well reach classic status. Leinster have been the better team and their historically fast start was truly exceptional. That said after an initial pummeling it's been impressive to see how La Rochelle have fought back. The French side are using their physicality to force themselves back into the game, in spite of the best efforts from the bulk of the crowd at the Aviva Stadium.
Another half like that please.
Well, well, well. Game on?
La Rochelle get into great field position as they move up the field. The power of their running is exceptional, managing to earn extra yards with each run. Some smart interplay sees Seuteni get over the line. It's duly converted.
The fightback is ON! 🔥@StadeRochelais are getting into their rhythm 🤩
It’s 🔵 23-14 🟡 at the break#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/f42J176Ehz
Action packed stuff here. We've had a Leinster lineout but play has generally switched between both teams in the Irish teams half. A loose ball saw some terrible football skills by a player in yellow, trying to dribble it like a blindfolded Lionel Messi over the line, but Keenan manages to rescue it and down it. In the midst of that there's a late hit on Kerr-Barlow that surprisingly wasn't looked at further.
If you're wondering why there's a break in play, it's because we have Levani Botia changing his shorts. You can write your own jokes there.
La Rochelle blow good field position with Bourgarit holding Sheehan on the floor and giving Leinster the penalty. Very stupid.
Bryne slots it home and that's a hammer blow mentally.
…and it did! Leinster win a penalty but after Gibson-Park and Skelton get into it, before the rest of the players pile in. It takes a couple of minutes to calm everyone down but the end result is that Bryne has a shot at the sticks, from about 30 metres, just to the right of the posts.
This is getting seriously physical here. Botia a menace at the ruck and causing jeers from the largely Irish crowd. Big hits are flying in all over the place and this feels like it could explode.
Leinster look tricky at the lineout. However, Gibson-Park gets the ball swotted from his hands and it goes forward, giving La Rochelle the scrum, deep in their own territory. The crowd whistle after the replay shows that the La Rochelle player hit more ball than wrist.
Another penalty for Leinster with Danty deemed offside. Bryne boots it to the corner.
Byrne slots the penalty right between the sticks and they're extending their lead again.
Leinster earn the penalty after Botia keeps hold during the breakdown.
Worth flagging that Kerr-Barlow is back from the sin bin and teams are level.
Game ON? 👀💛
La Rochelle reduce the deficit to 10 points courtesy of a Jonathan Danty try.#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/XARWlTX22Z
La Rochelle are back in it. They have another scrum on the right hand side of the field, it's played out with the second pass finding Jonathan Danty who ploughs into Ringrose and sends him flying, he then cuts left again and powers in under the posts. A brutal display of power from the French international.
It's converted and at 17-7 it feels like La Rochelle have taken some of the wind from Leinster sails.
Danty gets the ball, Danty scores 🤩@StadeRochelais get points on the board 💛#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/SKg8RFidhH
La Rochelle have the best of Leinster at the scrum. The first scrum fails and we go again, La Rochelle get the ball and burst for the try line but we come back. It's another scrum for the French side.
Leinster legally bring down the maul following the lineout, but a Lowe knock-on gives La Rochelle a chance deep into Leinster territory. A good chance for the players (and this journalist) to get some air, this start has been hectic.
La Rochelle get on the attack finally and move up the pitch. Hastor kicks to the corner and the French team finally get a chance to slow down and regroup.
The hooker has his second try in the opening 12 minutes! Dan Sheehan receives that ball on the right flank where he uses his powerful legs to burst to the line and get the ball down.
A missed conversion attempt for the second time in a row but this is scary stuff from Leinster.
Double Dan 🤩
Two tries for the Irish Hooker, it's been a masterclass first 1️⃣0️⃣ minutes for @leinsterrugby 🔥#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/xsOjpsq6Be
Such has been the sheer dominance of this start from Leinster that it's hard to keep up. The Irish side are just too quick at the breakdown. Gibson-Park goes quickly but the French team haven't given him 10 his fellow scrum-half Kerr-Barlow gets a yellow and 10 minutes in the sinbin.
We're five minutes in and Leinster have scored number too. Following on from the progress made that 50-22 Leinster have a scrum on the left hand side of the field. The ball is played across the park from left to right and O'Brien gets over in the corner.
Bryne can't convert this one with the ball curling to the left post. It's 12-0 inside the first few minutes. Game over?
Jimmy O'Brien with Leinster's second! #HeinekenChampionsCup #LEIvSR pic.twitter.com/rN6PZPtHQk
This is outrageous. A booming Leinster kick for the 50-22 and the Dubliners have a lineout within 10 metres. The stadium is going absolutely ballistic at that, like a try!
Leinster – a simply stunning start.
Leinster receive the ball from the kick off and Conan tries to steamroll the entire La Rochelle team. They have the bit between their teeth here.
We're barely one minute in and Leinster score. La Rochelle get the ball from the kickoff and clear it into touch, giving Leinster a lineout.
That's where the magic happens! A superbly drawn up play sees Conan running on to the short throw, he canters towards the opposition line, sucking in the remaining defender before playing to Sheehan outside of him.
The fastest try in Champions Cup final history. What a start!
It's converted too.
It’s the dream start for @LeinsterRugby! 🔥
Watch LIVE on @RTErugby, @btsportrugby, @francetvsport, @beinsports_FR, @SuperSportTV, @ITVRugby and @FloRugby 📺 pic.twitter.com/bgGAbNXqyZ
Leinster get us underway with a deep boot into La Rochelle territory.
Leinster: 15 Keenan; 14 O'Brien, 13 Ringrose, 12 Henshaw, 11 Lowe; 10 Byrne, 9 Gibson-Park; 1 Porter, 2 Sheehan, 3 Furlong; 4 Molony, 5 Ryan (capt); 6 Doris, 7 van der Flier, 8 Conan.
Bench: 16 Kelleher, 17 Healy, 18 Ala'alatoa, 19 Jenkins, 20 Baird, 21 McGrath, 22 Frawley, 23 Ngatai.
La Rochelle: 15 Dulin; 14 Leyds, 13Seuteni, 12 Danty, 11 Rhule; 10 Hastoy, 9 Kerr-Barlow; 1 Wardi, 2 Bourgarit, 3 Atonio; 4 Sazy, 5 Skelton; 6 Boudehent, 7 Botia, 8 Alldritt (capt).
Bench: 16 Lespiaucq-Brettes, 17 Sclavi, 18 Henri Colombe, 19 Lavault, 20 Bourdeau, 21 Dillane, 22 Berjon, 23 Favre.
There is a certain enjoyment factor when you go into the lion’s den.
À La Rochelle, les Rochelaises et les Rochelais sont déjà chauds à 10h ce matin.@fannylechevestr @ArnaudCoudry #LEIvSR 🟡⚫️ pic.twitter.com/zkNCiS4yTA
👏 La Rochelle fans see off their side. Wow. #HeinekenChampionsCuppic.twitter.com/PbNMQ8l3eo
It won't have escaped your attention that this is a repeat of last year's final which saw La Rochelle win 24-21 at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille.
That 59,682 crowd saw a 79th minute try from Arthur Retière seal the win. Retière is no longer at the club but the two other try scorers Raymond Rhule and Pierre Bourgarit are still at La Rochelle and both starting today.
Leinster didn't score a try that day but converted all seven of their penalties between Johnny Sexton, who misses out today with injury, and Ross Byrne.
It's a lovely day in Dublin, with sun occasionally poking out from behind clouds. Temperatures are around 16c and the rain should hold off until the game is long over and supporters are celebrating or drowning their sorrows in nearby pubs.
Le choc, c'est dans 2 heures.#LEIvSR | #ChampionsCup | #FievreSR pic.twitter.com/rvLgYsF8aq
𝐈𝐧 𝐜𝐚𝐬𝐞 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐦𝐢𝐬𝐬𝐞𝐝 𝐢𝐭.
This is the Leinster Rugby team that will take on La Rochelle in the Champions Cup final this afternoon. 💪#LEIvSR #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/H4a5JL9ozn
If Leinster were to win their 5th Champions Cup today that would get them level with Toulouse as the team with the most titles. Toulouse's last victory? Back in 2021 against this La Rochelle team in front of a tiny, socially-distanced crowd at Twickenham.
For La Rochelle, a win, their second in a row, in their third Champions Cup final in a row, could mark the start of a dynasty.
One or two fans of @staderochelais are about in Dublin for @ChampionsCup …..😜😜😜😜 #HeinekenChampionsCup #LEINSR pic.twitter.com/mavhErAZY5
Hello and welcome to Telegraph Sport's live coverage of the Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle, a repeat of last year's, but this time the Irish side has home advantage.
The 2022 decider was played in Marseille, with La Rochelle edging today's hosts 24-21 to claim their maiden title in this competition.
Jimmy O'Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan are the only Leinster players retained from last week's United Rugby Championship semi-final loss to Munster as coach Leo Cullen makes 12 changes.
Leinster scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park is determined to help secure a different outcome against Ronan O'Gara's side this time around.
"Last year was obviously tough, having to go away to France and play a French team," said the 31-year-old.
"The La Rochelle fans were out in force that day, like they always are, so I'm sure there will be a few of them that show up to the Aviva Stadium no doubt.
"It was a pretty big carrot for us at the start of the year, the fact it was going to be here in the Aviva.
"We're looking forward to it, we've got the chance to be in front of our friends and family and hopefully a few home supporters."
Leinster can match Toulouse’s record haul of five trophy wins in the competition but must do without injured flyhalf Johnny Sexton and back row Will Connors. Their absence is offset, to an extent, by the return to fitness of Ireland international wing James Lowe and flanker Scott Penny.
Ross Byrne has stood in well for Sexton in recent weeks, but this will be a huge test of his ability to command a game from the number 10 jersey.
Cullen rested a number of players for last weekend’s surprise defeat to Munster, a gamble he felt he had to take.
“We knew we were taking a bit of a risk,” Cullen said. “We can’t dwell on it. They [La Rochelle] will be desperate to retain their trophy so it’s two teams going hard at it again.
“Hopefully it will be a great occasion. That’s what we have to look forward to now.”