Challenge Cup final pits debutants La Rochelle against scarred Clermont

Rugby ball (File)
Rugby ball (File)

Newcastle - Up against Clermont's scarred veterans in the European Challenge Cup decider, La Rochelle will start their debut final shorn of one their pillars of experience, captain Victor Vito.

The 32-year-old back-row forward is out of Friday's final in Newcastle with a shoulder injury with his place taken by French international Gregory Alldritt. 

Physically Alldritt can fill the hole left by Vito. He is only one centimetre shorter, at 1.91 metres, and at 115 kilogrammes, is three kilogrammes heavier. But he is 10 years younger, and despite five French caps, far less experienced. 

While Vito has collected two World Cup winner's medals with New Zealand, the youthful Alldritt, like his club, has never appeared in a major final.

La Rochelle's players have spent the run up to the final dealing with the issue of experience. 

"It doesn't necessarily mean anything," said centre Geoffrey Doumayrou, who scored a try for Stade Francais when they won the final in 2017.

Coach Jono Gibbes saw it as a chance for his players.

"This is an opportunity for leaders to take responsibility. Some do it, others less so," he said.

New-Zealand born France prop Uini Atonio echoed the sentiment.

"We have a few guys who have been world champions, Top 14 champions and so on," he said. "We have a good mix between us. And everyone wants to win this cup." 

Yet experience can be two-edged. 

Despite their two national titles in 2010 and 2017, Clermont have long held a reputation as French rugby's eternal runners up. They have finished second in the national championship 11 times. 

On Friday, they will be breaking a tie with Toulouse with a seventh European final appearance. Yet, after winning their first 20 years ago as Montferrand, Clermont have lost four their five subsequent appearances, including all three in the Champions Cup.

That history gives several Clermont players the chance to set unwanted records. 

"I've never won a European title," said winger Alexandre Lapandry, who has played for the team since 2008.

The 34-year-old Clermont hooker Benjamin Kayser could collect a seventh European final loser's medal to go with those he has collected with Stade, way back in 2005, Leicester, and four times with Clermont. 

Captain and scrum half Morgan Parra also played in his team's last four European final losses.

Parra told the French media that he could write their match previews for them.

"La Rochelle have nothing to lose. It is playing its first final. I know the story," he said. "You'll say we are favourites and that Rochelle are behind and it will be a miracle if they win. I can already write it for you."

"It's going to be a beautiful Franco-French final," he said "For you Clermont may be favourite. For me it will be 50-50." 

His half-back partner, Camille Lopez, who is 30, said he was going into the match thinking that it could be "perhaps my last final."

"The European Cup, even if it's the little one, you have to respect it," the France international said. 

While La Rochelle are not entirely certain of a place in the Top14 playoffs, Clermont have locked up their berth with two rounds to go, a significant improvement on the last season, a nightmarish defence of their French title. 

"There's this hatred from last season," said Lopez. "Anger has served us all season."

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