La Rochelle Shine On European Debut

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RUGBYU-EUR-CUP-HARLEQUINS-LA ROCHELLE
La Rochelle's players celebrate their win on the pitch after the European Rugby Champions Cup rugby union round 1 pool match between Harlequins and La Rochelle at Twickenham Stoop Stadium in west London on October 14, 2017. La Rochelle won the game 34-27. / AFP PHOTO / OLLY GREENWOOD (Photo credit should read OLLY GREENWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

The question most fans had was ‘whether La Rochelle could travel as well as they could host?’. So their bonus point 34-27 win in the English capital answered that, as La Rochelle shine in the Champions Cup competition.

Currently legitimising last season’s breakthrough brilliance, by winning five of their opening seven games in French Top 14, La Rochelle crossed the channel and were keen to showcase to Europe what much of France already knew: this side can play.

They’ve put themselves at Europe’s top table with a brand of rugby which is, some would say high risk, but exceptional to witness. Had they swapped their white and black shirts for those more in keeping with the familiar yellow and blue of Clermont Auvergne few would’ve noticed the difference.

Centre Geoffrey Doumayrou and hooker Hikairo Forbes both crossed for the visitors in the opening 40, but throughout the whole contest were immensely impressive.

European Bow in the Shadows of Twickenham

Starting La Rochelle fly-half Ryan Lamb could have kicked the ball more, with a heavily assisting wind albeit, on to the hallowed Twickenham Stoop turf. The Champions Cup fixture is one few offshore teams succeed at, but La Rochelle look like a side who care little about reputations, settings or the status quo.

It took them two minutes to get their driving maul rolling to allow Forbes to open the score on the night. Harlequins hit back though, with Jamie Roberts cutting a great line and utilising his physicality to find a hole close to the visitors line. He popped a pass to the rushing support of Charlie Matthews ,to dot down for ‘Quins. That left the score at 10-10 after Lamb and Harlequins number 10 Marcus Smith traded penalties.

Early Blitz From La Rochelle

European stereotypes suggest French sides don’t travel well, but La Rochelle scored the next 14 points at the Stoop to dull that suggestion. First, Doumayrou cut through a hole in the Harlequins defence. The centre traded offloads with captain Jason Eaton, before scoring under the posts.

Harlequins were struggling to cope with the pace and energy of the visitors. And when Dany Priso went over on the outside from close range, the bonus point was in sight for La Rochelle early. Great for traveling fans, whilst the contest was in danger of looking ‘out of sight’ for the hosts if they weren’t careful.

Returning to the competition for the first time in three years, Harlequins were not about to be left ‘blushing on their own patch’ mind you. Smith popped a pass to Mike Brown, who quickly found Joe Merchant in the clear. He resisted the tackle of the defender and showed some excellent leg drive to dot down. If anything, it showed [with authority] that Harlequins were heading into the break with the match balanced, 17-24.

Harlequins Look for Late Fight Back

Harlequins may have felt, with the deficit at just seven points, that the second half would turn in their favour. Instead much the opposite occurred. The irrepressible La Rochelle centre Doumayrou was the grateful recipient of one Lamb’s perfect passes. He raced clear, after the fly-half had waltzed through the Harlequins defensive line.

That secured the European minnows the bonus point and Lamb’s penalty shortly after gave La Rochelle a 17 point cushion. Harlequins of course, roared on by their home faithful, never resist a challenge but this looked ominous.

With twenty minutes remaining, Will Collier was able to crash over. The home side felt the comeback was on and the majority of the final quarter was in fact played in La Rochelle’s half. Harlequins peppered the visitors line with Marland Yarde and try scorer Merchant prominent in trying to find a hole in the defence.

However, try as they might, the end result was 27-34. The late fight back not enough to bring any joy to home fans in yet another European fixture.

Poor Record Continues for London Team

Harlequins have endured European heartbreak in recent years, after losing the Challenge Cup final to Montpellier two seasons ago. Last season saw them fail to exit a Challenge Cup pool deemed to be challenging, with Edinburgh and Stade Francais also present.

In 2017/18, they face an equally difficult pool in this season’s professional rugby competition, and defeat in their opening home game will make an already difficult challenge seem like an Everest ascent.

Their efforts proved in vain as La Rochelle demonstrated they are just as capable in defence as they are in attack. Marcus Smith kicked a late penalty before the end of regulation time, to reduce the deficit to seven points – ensuring a losing bonus point.

But on opening night Quins will have wanted much more. Instead it was La Rochelle who produced a performance certainly worthy of Europe’s interest.

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