Leinster v La Rochelle: Five players to watch in the Champions Cup final

·6-min read
Ahead of the Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, we pick out five players to watch in Dublin. Credit: Alamy
Ahead of the Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, we pick out five players to watch in Dublin. Credit: Alamy

Ahead of the Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium, we pick out five players to watch on Saturday.

Two world-class matchday 23s have been announced ahead of the mouth-watering rematch from last season, making it an incredibly difficult job to narrow it down to just five players.

After some tough calls, here are our two Leinster players and three La Rochelle players to keep an eye on.

Five players to watch in the Champions Cup final

Levani Botia

With La Rochelle opting for a 6-2 split, we could well see Botia feature in the pack and the backs during the final. The Fijian has proven his quality in the centres for over a decade, and the one-club legend is now extending his career with the long-touted move into the back-row.

This season Botia has almost exclusively played in the back-row, quickly becoming one of the best exponents of turnover ball in European rugby.

The 34-year-old has won eight turnovers in the tournament, a tally only Gregory Alldritt has beaten. Their contributions at the breakdown have made La Rochelle the most successful side of this campaign in winning turnovers. They have an average of 9.6 turnovers per 80 minutes, and Botia will be keen to keep up that tempo against Leinster, who thrive on extended periods of possession.

Outside of his threat over the ball, Botia is incredibly difficult to bring to ground and still has a decent turn of pace that Leinster will need to be aware too.

This is the third time Botia is featuring in the final of the Champions Cup, and after being red-carded in his first appearance against Toulouse and coming off the bench in the second last season; he will be eager to make the most of his start.

UJ Seuteni

The Samoan international produced an incredible man-of-the-match performance in the semi-final against Exeter Chiefs to steer his side into the showpiece event.

After Exeter started the game brightly, Seuteni scored the second try for La Rochelle that shifted momentum firmly into La Rochelle’s favour and set up another score for Tawera Kerr-Barlow with a mind-blowing offload. He beat a round high of eight defenders and missed just one of his eight attempted tackles.

The skilled centre has stepped in at fly-half for La Rochelle and his former club Bordeaux and is a real triple threat – run, pass and kick – on attack and a sharp defender, making for a fantastic head-to-head with Garry Ringrose.

With Jonathan Danty back again for La Rochelle, Seuteni could be even more threatening to Leinster running smart lines off his hulking centre partner. The pair will need to be on top of their game if they are two crack through the Irish centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose.

Pierre Bourgarit

Powerhouse hooker Bourgarit is deceptively fast, and given half a chance, he will rip through the Leinster defence.

The 25-year-old is on the fringes of the French squad, and the final gives him the perfect opportunity to impress and force Fabien Galthie’s hand.

He fronts up against Dan Sheehan, with the two players having many similarities making for an intriguing battle.

Bourgarit has scored four tries in the Champions Cup this season and beaten 15 defenders, just three less than full-back Brice Dulin and four off Alldritt and has gained over 150 metres and made five clean breaks.

While he has shone with the ball in hand, he is no slouch on defence, making 41 tackles and two turnovers in his six games.

La Rochelle will need him to be on top of his game at the lineouts, with the French side boasting just an 87.8 per cent success rate, more than five per cent less than Leinster.

Caelan Doris

Doris has enjoyed a stunning run of form over the past 18 months and heads into the game off the back of winning the vote for the Irish Men’s XVs Players’ Player of the Year.

The 25-year-old has been outstanding in the Champions Cup, lending his weight on both sides of the ball.

He packs down on the side of the scrum, with Jack Conan at number eight, but that will matter little to the hard-working back-rower. So far in the competition, he has seven try involvements, scoring twice and assisting five.

In his six matches, he has gained 133 metres from his 52 carries and made 11 passes. On defence, he has made 41 tackles and won three turnovers. While his turnover stats don’t reflect it as much as it should, he has been extremely active at the breakdown, with only Josh van der Flier hitting more defensive rucks (37) than Doris (35) for Leinster.

Doris will undoubtedly be up for the physical battle that awaits against the abrasive La Rochelle pack.

Ross Byrne

All eyes will turn to Byrne at fly-half, who fills in for injured captain Johnny Sexton.

The 28-year-old has regularly stepped up to the mark for Leinster and is entrusted with the starting jumper in the Champions Cup showpiece.

It is a massive game for Byrne to secure Leinster’s fifth star and show that he can lead the side to victory in a crunch clash with the Rugby World Cup fast approaching.

This promises to be a closely fought encounter which the placekickers could decide, and Byrne has been sharp off the tee this season. In the United Rugby Championship, he has kicked at an 86 per cent success rate; in the Champions Cup, he has kicked at 88 per cent.

His kicking in open play is also bound to play a crucial role in the match, especially with the lineout being a rich source of tries for both sides this season.

Byrne has all the skills to get the best out of the players around him, and if he does make the most of it, it will go a long way in claiming that elusive fifth star and ending Leinster’s two-year trophy drought.

READ MORE: Leinster v La Rochelle: Five key head-to-heads to watch in the Champions Cup final

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