Last season's Champions Cup finalists Leinster and La Rochelle to clash againJul 13 | 1 min read
Toulouse and La Rochelle will do battle to be crowned kings of Europe in an all-French final on English soil as the Heineken Champions Cup reaches its thrilling conclusion at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.
Will Toulouse's all-star cast of rugby galacticos create history with a fifth European crown? Or will new kids on the block La Rochelle win their first piece of European silverware to cap off a remarkable season under Ireland legend Ronan O'Gara?
Read on for a full preview featuring all the key talking points ahead of the biggest game in club rugby.
Saturday 22 May
TV: BT Sport 2HD & BT Ultimate
Toulouse chase star number five
European rugby royalty Toulouse have the chance to become the greatest side in Heineken Champions Cup history with a record-breaking fifth crown up for grabs at Twickenham.
The French giants have dispatched Clermont, Bordeaux and Munster on their way to a first final appearance for 11 years, and the omens are looking good for head coach Ugo Mola's side.
Three of their four European Cup triumphs have come in all-French affairs against Perpignan in 2003, Stade Francais in 2005 and Biarritz in their most recent final appearance in 2010.
“We hope to be able to add a fifth star on our jersey,” said Mola after watching his side beat Bordeaux-Begles in the last four.
“We are privileged, we have the chance to play a European Cup final and as for Twickenham, what better way to play a European Cup final. I’m lucky to be at an incredible club.”
If the four-time winners are to create history at Twickenham they will need to do so without their captain.
Julien Marchand, who has been named on the five-man European Player of the Year shortlist, will miss the final after he was handed a four-week suspension for a dangerous tackle in the semi-finals.
The France hooker was initially cited by an independent disciplinary committee for a challenge on Bordeaux's Romain Buros, which was missed by referee Wayne Barnes.
The committee upheld the citing complaint, concluding Marchand had made contact with Buros' head and warranted a red card.
While the absence of their talismanic leaders is a cruel blow, the reigning Top 14 champions will take heart from their form against French opponents en route to the final.
Toulouse recorded victories over Clermont and Bordeaux in the quarter-finals and semis respectively and few would bet against them making it a clean sweep come May 22.
With an enthralling spectacle in store on the field, Twickenham will also welcome 10,000 rugby fans into the venue after COVID-19 restrictions were loosened in the United Kingdom.
Whether it's a maiden European trophy for La Rochelle or a record-breaking fifth for Toulosue, we're guaranteed to witness history in the making.
'Rugby's Lionel Messi' takes centre stage
How La Rochelle contain Toulouse Antoine Dupont will go a long way to deciding who comes out on top at Twickenham.
The France international scrum-half is the little general for Toulouse's star-studded outfit and a first European winners' medal would be the icing on the cake of a remarkable year for the 24-year-old.
The French international – who has scored four tries in as many Champions Cup matches – has proven to be a key component in Toulouse’s blistering attack..
"He's our version of Lionel Messi," said BT Sport pundit and three-time Champions Cup winner Brian O'Driscoll after watching Dupont steer Toulouse to a first final in 11 years.
"He's the one that consistently turns up, whether it's in the blue of France or the red of Toulouse. He's just everything good about them," he added.
O'Driscoll's glowing praise has been echoed by World Cup-winning ex-Springbok winger Bryan Habana, who won the second of his two Champions Cup winners' medals at Twickenham in 2015, describing the scrum-half as “phenomenal”.
“He’s one of the players, globally at the moment, that everyone is just absolutely loving,” Habana said.
“Not just because of his ability to score tries, I think his tenacity, his speed, his commitment physically.
"He’s probably about 90-odd kgs but he literally goes round like an extra loose forward, he gets involved.
“I think the one thing that is an improvement area is maybe his kicking game, but even though he’s just got this knack to find luck – I think his work ethic is phenomenal."
The most exciting coach in world rugby?
The name Ronan O'Gara is synonomous with the Heineken Cup.
Throughout the 2000s he was Munster's talismanic fly-half in a decade that delivered two European Cups and more than a few unforgettable Thomand Park memories.
Having retired as the competition's all-time leading points scorer, O'Gara began a coaching career that already has echoes of his decorated playing days.
O'Gara first cut his teeth as a coach in New Zealand and his two years with Super Rugby powerhouse the Crusaders were immensely formative in the establishment of his own coaching principles.
The Irishman has introduced a "keep the ball alive" philosophy that has helped transform La Rochelle from European Cup minnows to contenders.
"In the Crusaders the skills of the front five were very, very high," said O'Gara. "In France, in the past there may have not been an environment where you encouraged your front five players to pass and play with the ball.
"For me that's non-negotiable, they have to be confident. But if they've been told in the past just to clean rucks and push in the scrum, I don't know how enjoyable their daily work was going to be.
"For me when I came in it was like, OK, everyone has to be able to back left-to-right and right-to-left, we've got to practise and train it but you've got to be considerate to them.
"If they're trying a new technique and the ball goes to the ground that's OK. It's a skills error, it's not an error with attitude, they just haven't been used to it."
One player who embodies O'Gara's philosophy on rugby is Will Skelton.
The giant Aussie lock arrived in western France after helping Saracens to their third and most recent European crown and the 29-year-old made an immediate impact on the continent.
“There are powerful players and then there is Will Skelton,” said O'Gara.
“He’s out of a category because he is so different to everyone else and you know he most definitely has changed our team and he is a very, very special player.
“You most definitely need powerful players, but for me what brings out the best in powerful players is the people who have the capacity to think two or three seconds ahead of everyone else.
“In sport there will always be a place for players who are the fastest thinkers, in rugby you probably need a ratio of 2:1 power to thinkers – but for me the guys with game intelligence will always shine through.”
Skelton is just one of the players to have gone from strength to strength under O'Gara's tutelage.
Much of the praise for La Rochelle’s remarkable run in Europe has gone to O'Gara, but the Munster man is always keen to champion his players.
"Once a player's opinion is valued and respected and he has a platform where he can speak openly, that can accelerate another discussion and all of a sudden 40 minutes have gone and you're involved in a discussion with the whole team," he said.
"It's something that I'm not open for debate or negotiate on, that's what I believe in. That's the way meetings on my watch have to take place. you've got to support your team-mate, you've got to set him up to succeed and give him space to grow, get better and get the best out of himself."
Guiding La Rochelle to a first ever European Cup crown would represent O'Gara's greatest achievement in his long and decorated career in rugby. As for what's next? The sky's the limit for one of the best rugby minds in the game.
Lions get early glimpse of King Kolbe
They say good things come in small packages, and they don't come much smaller than Cheslin Kolbe.
At 74 kilograms and just 5ft 7 inches tall, the Toulouse winger is a rare breed in modern rugby where size, strength and brute force are king.
But what the South Africa international lacks in size he more than makes up for ability.
For those that have had the pleasure of watching him live, it will come as no surprise to learn that South Africa's Olympic gold medallist Wayde van Niekerk is his cousin.
As well as electric speed that clearly runs in the family, Kolbe's impossibly quick feet and ruthless eye for the try-line makes him one of the deadliest finishers in the game.
"He really is a game changer, someone that fights well above his weight," said BT Sport's Ugo Monye, who toured South Africa with the Lions back in 2009.
"I think Cheslin Kolbe is an inspiration in his own right, at 5ft 7 with sparkling feet, his ability to make international rugby players look amateur is a skill in itself."
"He's one of the most devastating runners ever. You can compare him to the likes ofJason Robinson. He's a superstar in his own right."
The biggest stages require the biggest players and the Champions Cup final looks set to be the first in a series of big performances for Kolbe this summer.
Having starred in South Africa's World Cup-winning campaign in 2019, the 27-year-old is expected to play a pivotal role in July's three-match Test series against the British & Irish Lions.
"Cheslin Kolbe is a born athlete but he's brave as well, and that's what's got him to the top," said former Springbok captain John Smit in a recent appearance on Rugby Tonight.
As rugby prepares to welcome back fans for the first time in months, the chance to watch Kolbe in full flow is worth the admission fee alone.