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
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
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."