Venue – Stade de France
Date: Saturday, June 17
La Rochelle is on the verge of completing a historic double as they attempt to add the Top 14 title to the Champions Cup trophy they won last month. They would become the third French side to achieve the double in the almost three decades that the European Cup has been around, but the mighty Toulouse stand in their way in Paris on Saturday.
Toulouse has already won the double – twice – and they would love nothing better than to stop another club from joining them in that elitist of company. Along with pride on the day, there are countless individual battles to watch, with the 2023 Rugby World Cup creeping ever closer on the horizon. The Top 14 is the richest league in the world, and it is about to get even richer thanks to a huge TV deal, which means both these teams are loaded with star power that clubs in other leagues could only dream of putting together.
For Toulouse, it all starts with scrum-half Antoine Dupont. The 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year is unmatched at his position. He does everything you would want from a scrum-half at the most basic level but adds to that with an elite skillset that pushes him over the top. He is powerful, kicks as well as any player in the world, and his game management is always on point. That sense of game management – when to kick, when to distribute, and run- will play a huge role in this contest.
It is also a massive day for lock Emmanuel Meafou. The Auckland-born 24-year-old is a physical specimen. He has been the dominant pack player for Toulouse this season, standing out from the crowd with his size and skills. His head-to-head with La Rochelle’s second-row monster figures to be one of the highlights of the occasion.
Will Skelton would be that monster, and the Australian lock figures to give Meafou his greatest test of the season. At 31 years old, Skelton is in the form of his life. That is quite the statement, given his countless major trophies playing for La Rochelle and Saracens already. Skelton is as tall as Meafou and almost as heavy, and he uses his bulk as well as any player in the world. La Rochelle’s chances of winning greatly increase if he can be the biggest physical presence on the pitch.
These were the best two teams in the Top 14 this year by some margin. Toulouse finished top of the table with 70 points (17 wins), while La Rochelle was second with 68 points from the same number of wins. That was a full 10 points ahead of third-placed Lyon.
Toulouse’s battering of Racing 92 41-14 last weekend was the most impressive performance of the season, and they are certainly right on top of their game at the most important time. La Rochelle beat Bordeaux by 11 points, not quite as impressive, but doing more than enough to suggest they haven’t yet run out of steam at the end of a long season competing on two fronts.
It is notable that though La Rochelle won the last match between the two, Toulouse holds a 17-7 advantage over their last 24 matches. They continue that overall form and win this one to crush La Rochelle’s dreams of a double.