If winning a Champions Cup is a feat that many professional rugby players can only dream of, then winning back-to-back titles must be the stuff of legend.
But Ghana-born Springbok Raymond Rhule and his La Rochelle side are chasing a hat-trick of consecutive titles, something only fellow Top14 side Toulon have managed in the competition’s history.
La Rochelle are Atlantic coast outcasts, only relatively recently promoted to the big time in France; an English equivalent might be Exeter Chiefs. But they’re a passionate bunch, with the whole town turning out to support Les Maritimes.
With Irish legend Ronan O’Gara at the helm they have toppled European giants Leinster in two consecutive finals – in Marseille and Dublin – in the last two years. They begin their hat-trick bid this weekend against Leinster at their fortress, the Stade Marcel-Deflandre.
La Rochelle legacy
“We are obviously excited for this competition and being a part of it is something special,” Rhule said. “We as La Rochelle are trying to create our own history and our own legacy spearheaded by our coach.
“But the other teams have aspirations. Essentially, they are coming for our heads. We take that as a sign of respect that they see us as competition and we will put on a great spectacle for the spectators.”
It hasn’t been plain sailing for the two-time champions this season, however, with the side struggling on the domestic front. They have seen the slow return of a number of internationals who featured at the World Cup but have recruited well with the likes of former England star Jack Nowell on their books.
They were close to doing the double last year, too, but were beaten in the very last minute of their Top14 final against Toulouse by the solo brilliance of France No10 Romain Ntamack. Rhule and teammates would like nothing better than to settle that score in the Champions Cup final in London.
“For us, it is definitely us versus Toulouse – as a group, that is a final we would like to have,” he adds. “There’s a good rivalry going there and they’ve robbed us of a couple of trophies so that is the ideal situation. But we just want to be there and whoever we face is a cherry on top.”
Springbok Rhule is yet to face one of the South African franchises in this competition, though his La Rochelle side toppled four English sides on their way to the title in 2023. Could he stomach a South African winner in this iconic European competition? Well, not just yet.
“Obviously I would not want that while I am still in France but one thing we can always give to the South Africans is that they’re able to adapt,” he says.
“That may not always be evident at the start but they are very good at putting things together and fixing whatever they need to fix, coming back more dominant and being able to go toe to toe with the best.
“We cannot look past them but we still all have our own aspirations. It is going to be tough for whoever wins but you cannot count the South Africans out, not by a long shot.”
Three in a row would be an iconic achievement for a side who were in the second tier less than two decades ago. They’re a phoenix story, a tale of building together and succeeding. Many will secretly have Les Jaune et Noir as their second team.