Ugo Mola, the Toulouse head coach, sat at the top table during the post-match press conference at Twickenham and attempted to sum up the contribution Jerome Kaino has made to this team, with the two men sitting either side of the Champions Cup trophy.
“This young Toulouse generation had the privilege of being able to win with him,” Mola said of the two-time World Cup winner, who will retire at the end of the season. “When you have the chance in your life to meet a guy like him, you have to take advantage.”
Kaino might have been at Toulouse longer than the handful of games Brad Thorn had with Leinster back in 2012, but both former All Blacks have proved to be enormously influential for their adopted sides and have now both lifted European Cups. Antoine Dupont, the Toulouse and France scrum-half named European Player of the Year after the final whistle said of his veteran team-mate: “Jerome deserved [the award] just as much as I did.”
Now 38 years old, Kaino was off after 54 minutes but his influence over this Toulouse side clearly extends beyond the field. It was fitting that his replacement Selevasio Tolofua, one of the young back-rowers soaking up Kaino’s advice on a weekly basis, contributed heavily to Juan Cruz Mallia’s vital second-half try, as Toulouse went on to defeat first-time finalists La Rochelle to win a record fifth Champions Cup crown.
“I knew it was my last chance to win the European Cup and I am very proud of the team, the club, our preparation, the way we are challenged this season,” Kaino explained. “We have come very close the last two seasons but we had a really good feeling this year, with the way we were very tight. Playing away at Munster and Clermont brought us closer together.
“It’s a huge honour to be part of this group and to live up to the history. To play alongside a lot of these younger superstars is hugely satisfying and to be part of their careers, is amazing.”
Mallia’s try after 59 minutes was a welcome highlight after a fairly tight and, to be honest, rather drab encounter, similar to previously cagey all-French Champions Cup finals of the past. That was partly due to an excessive penalty count. Luke Pearce, one of the better French-speaking referees, resorted to pleading in English with both captains to put a lid on the indiscipline.
A red card was sadly expected given the heightened focus currently on cutting out contact to the head, and La Rochelle centre Levani Botia could have no arguments with his sending off for a shoulder charge to the head of the Toulouse veteran Maxime Medard after 27 minutes.
Botia’s red card deprived the 10,000 at Twickenham of more of the Fijian’s blockbuster ball-carrying and offloads, but if anything his departure galvanised La Rochelle, already strong in the scrum up to that point and right in the contest through Ihaia West’s goalkicking. The sight of their impressive second-row Will Skelton tossing Antoine Dupont to the ground as if he was putting out the rubbish was a particular highlight. “I take my hat off to La Rochelle,” said Kaino. “I think the red card galvanised them.”
Romain Ntamack, the France fly-half, deserves credit too. This was one of his best goalkicking performances, with five penalties and a conversion of Mallia’s try, but it was also his sumptuous wide pass to Tolofua which opened La Rochelle up for Mallia to score. By winning at Twickenham, Ntamack and his father, Emile, became the first father and son duo to both win Europe’s biggest prize.
Not that Toulouse had an easy ride at the finish. Mallia’s try and Ntamack’s fifth penalty gave Toulouse a 22-12 lead but credit to this enthralling La Rochelle side, led by one of the game’s brightest young coaching minds in Ronan O’Gara, for their persistence despite being a man down for over 40 minutes. Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s late try won over the neutrals in the crowd and it would have been some story had they triumphed, the club only promoted to the Top 14 seven years ago in their first European final, overcoming a red card to upset the European giants.
Yet it wasn’t to be. “It’s not as if we didn’t threaten so damn right I’m proud of them, of course I am, we’ve come a long way, but there’s no point being second best,” O’Gara said. They may get a chance for revenge soon in the Top 14 play-offs. But this was Toulouse’s day, a history-making day, made possible by Kaino’s influence and France’s talented young stars.